Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 16

Moving On



Wednesday, May 7, 2709, continued

       The waning sliver of a moon barely shows us anything when the cart rolls down its most familiar ruts. But the stars burn all the more keenly over the clearing, framed all around by the black tops of trees, and the golden light from the windows of the clustered huts looks welcoming enough. The warm, nutty scent of stapleseed overlays and makes bearable the odor of pig's dung, goats, and a chicken-coop. He's got a vegetable patch, too; but I can no longer discern what kinds, not the way I used to before I started smoking. Maybe tomato? Maybe not.
       "You want privacy, you got it," says the old man as he helps us out of the cart. He puts a supporting arm around me as Alysha does the same for Cyran, and leads us to one of his many outbuildings: a small, unfurnished wooden structure even smaller than Alysha's den in the forest, but it has a small table with a pitcher and a basin on it, two straight-backed wooden chairs and a proper bed for Cyran. Most importantly, it has a little grate where we can make hir medicine.
       Rashid knew some way of keeping carpaya resin soft and applicable on the road, without fire. If only we had him here!
       Alysha spreads out Cyran's mat on the clean-swept wooden floor. I notice hooks in the walls and remember that my mat can convert into a hammock, threading a couple of cords in my pack through the grommets. The window even has a screen on it, letting in the humid sweetness of the night. I also smell, just outside a second door, fresh sawdust and a whiff of something not so fresh, but not too bad, all things considered; our good farmer keeps composting toilets for all who lodge with him.
       I know this can't be a manor--I saw no mansion on the way in. Everything looks built catch-as-catch-can, from bits and scraps. An independent village, then, maintained by old retirees and young runaways and the occasional fortunate who found a way to pay off his debts legally and start off on his own. A good place for travelers, then, who can't find an inn, or who don't want to. And Alysha knows and trusts the people here; we can sleep the night through without a guard. Soon I surrender to my hammock fresh-scrubbed and in such peace as I can hardly remember having felt before.
       Almost. I don't think I will ever again sleep so deeply that some part of me stops listening.
       ("I had it all wrong," Lufti says, lying beside me, his hand stroking over my hip. "You are no mere star! You are my moon. And your cool illumination would never hurt me. You hold my clarity in your trust."
       I don't even try to understand him. I'm supposed to be the rational one, but I don't need reason right now, no more than the calling night-bird overhead or the breezes whispering happy nonsense to the foliage all around. I just nestle into his shoulder and feel safe, irrationally safe and relaxed and utterly at peace.)

Thursday, May 8, 2709

       (Wearing an enormous, bright-hued scarf wound about me sarong-style, I pour hot water into the trash-can full of our clothing, toss in several chunks of lye soap, and seal the lid on tight with waxed rope. Now Ozwald and Anselmo, bare-chested and shivering with their own scarves girding their loins, wrestle the heavy thing up into the truck, roping it into place, while I put out the fire.
       We laugh a bit, blushing, when we dash into the cab as fast as we can to turn on the engine and get the heater going. As we take off down the battered road, our jostling launders our clothing nicely, or so I hope.
       The intense colors don't complement my complexion, but for once I don't hold looking attractive as a high priority when jammed in skin to skin with my brother travelers. Kind of the Bishya Kibehans to part with these excellent fabrics, though, considering that they're almost out of the wherewithal to make more. In return they want us to keep an eye out for a certain community that they've seen wearing a lot of bright colors, but didn't dare approach, down this road a ways. They're willing to trade good quality sorghum syrup for dyes.)

       I wake, rather late in the day, to freshly laundered clothing laid out for me, along with a gray and brown clay cup full of water and a wooden plate offering two dulcinas, some flat-bread coiled around white cheese softening in the humid heat, and a sprig of quya. I pick up the dark, bluegreen herb, slightly iridescent, and sniff its minty-clove scent. Even just doing that much settles my feverish stomach enough to let me eat this admittedly greasy, if delicious, breakfast. The cheese tastes fresh and mild, the bread has that nutty richness of stapleseed, and the dulcinas taste like somebody picked them that morning. I switch back and forth between the fruit and the wrap, with occasional bittersweet nibbles on the herb to keep my system settled enough to appreciate it.
       Clean, clothed, quenched and fed, I sit on my hammock debating whether to go out in search of company or lay right back down again. Just as I decide that the last by far seems most enticing, especially since Cyran seems to have gone somewhere (how?) Alysha comes in.
       "We have to leave," she says.
       "Good morning to you, too."
       "Good afternoon. We have to leave. Mustesar's gotten away with a lot, being pretty much made up of old and disabled people..."
       I nod. "Too slow to work for commercial farms, not important enoughto notice."
       "Yet lately police have suspected it of harboring fugitives," she grins and winks, "which it does."
       "And being a rebel hub,"
       "Which it is."
       "We won't likely take the main road out, then."
       "Yet you seem oddly cheerful."
       "That's because the secret way's so much fun!"
       Ohhhkay. This should get interesting.
       (Nothing interests me except him, and yet because of him everything seems interesting. Oh, I know he's mad, yet he's also magical. His dancing and his acrobatics in the trees have made him muscular, his tangled hair looks golden in the sun, even a faint dusting of gold around his loins, a soft fuzz on his cheeks, as he stands up naked and whistles. Somehow, with a shiver, I know that it's a secret whistle, a tune of the dead--or at least he thinks of it that way.
       I probably pick it up from him when I reach for my dress. My hand falls on the pocket with that magentine crystal that Cyran has ordered me to carry everywhere. I shrug on the dress, cinching the sewn-on sashes tightly. I can double them around me now and tie them jauntily to one side, but my tummy-skin underneath it hangs like a skirt over my womanhood. Makhliya said to keep it specially clean under there or I'll get sores. But Lufti doesn't mind; he said "I love my moon in all her phases," when I almost wept at the sight of my own body bared before him. Moon, huh? That's good enough for me.
       By the time I have my things gathered and my pack ready to go, I hear something or someone large pushing through the undergrowth. I start to pull up my rifle, but Lufti says, "It's okay, Kiril."
       A proud, silver-gray stallion with faintly spotted flanks steps into our meadow and nuzzles Lufti. "Hello Plata", he murmurs into the velvety ear. "Let's go find Pearl.")

       I can walk the short distance into the jungle that they ask of me; at this point the fever only makes me feel a little bit lightheaded, and that's not unpleasant if I don't push myself too hard. We walk awhile through the communally-farmed stapleseed field. The wind ruffles the many umbrels of white flowers around each glossy, coppery seed; the land kind of shimmers when it does that, almost as if silent giggles shake the plants, amused at us human beings for worrying so much when they have so much abundance to give.
       Yet I remember last year's famine, the feel of it in the pit of the belly and a matching pit in the brain, the difficulty of thinking of anything else but hunger, not even able to consider, without great difficulty, some solution for that need. No, the field's pretty, and this year generous, but not at all reliable.
       Better fed than back then, I look up at the slopes, one of which we now begin to scale. Why don't they dig swales and ponds to make the best use of the monsoon rains? Why don't they build nation-wide waterworks, and not just a bit of outdated plumbing in the cities? Wet and dry years tend to alternate rather predictably around here, feast and famine; why couldn't the Charadoc organize some response?
       Because it never impacts the people who make decisions. I doubt if anyone in Soskia's circle even knew that 2707 and part of 2708 was a famine year, and while we're prospering now, we've already begun the tilt towards another.
       Never mind that; I can do nothing about it right now, unable to lift a shovel. Let me just soak up the beauty of the rainforest that we walk into. I've grown used to the green-washed air of the wild lands and feel glad to totter away from the smoke and the animal-pens. And oh, how it blooms! The Lady of the Mast must have danced through here recently. Each time the breezes shift they intoxicate me with a different perfume.
       But after awhile I sink down before I even realize that my body has decided to sit. I hold onto a nearby bough until the forest settles into a slow undulation caused by wind and not my burning brain.
       Softly the old man says, "That's okay. Let her rest a bit. It's not far, now." I feel ashamed to sit here while someone three times my age stands on his feet, not at all winded. Nobody suggests giving me a bit of leaf to get me going; I wish they would and I'm glad they don't. I've got nothing to sustain me except a wistful bit of birdsong in the air. I wish it could suffice.
       "Where's Pearl?" I ask, just to make conversation.
       "Oh, she can't go the road you're going, missy. She's already gone, on the paved way with ol' Blind Tovey to keep her company. He knows his way back on foot, none better, and it's just as fast, but we can't have you seen out there, not right now with the countryside stirred up. Everybody knows what the Tilián Witch looks like."
       "Stirred up? What's been happening?"
       "Another local high-caster got burnt out for harboring rebels. Lately manors have been catching fire right and left, but always the small ones--clearing the underbrush, so to speak. The press says that rebels did it, ingrates robbing their benefactors and torching their mansions when they don't get everything their way, and it serves the traitors right, but we all know better, leastways out in the countryside we do. They'll believe anything in the cities." Then he leans close and whispers, "Word's out that Cyran got wounded and has gone to ground around these parts. Of course nobody in Mustesar would know anything about that." His eyes twinkle when he winks at me.
       "Of course not," I reply. I try to come up with a witty reply, yawn instead, and find my eyes closing despite myself.
       (I sigh with relief when Anselmo pulls over, saying that our clothes are probably dry by now. We climb out to check our laundry, hanging, from both sides of the truck and across the back, by ropes threaded through the arms, legs, head or waist holes. All this time they've flapped alongside us, making constant wet smacking noises, growing softer as we went, as we drove through the spring countryside, the day being fine and clear. This whole ride I've had to keep smiling and not biting my lip for fear that one end or another of the rope might come untied and let our clothing whip away on the highway behind us. But darling Ozwald knows his knots.
       We find most of them quite dry and smelling of the sweet spring air, though ridiculously wrinkled. Some of them have bunched up when they lost their clips in travel, so, not surprisingly, a few still feel moist in the folds. No matter; they can continue drying in the back of the truck, since they're few enough now to spread out without piling.
       I examine the crinkly landscape of my favorite blouse, a delicate blue stripe-weave sateen that matches my eyes, with a bit of lace around the cuffs and collar. Ah well, some cultures find wrinkled clothing beautiful, and store their garments tied up in various configurations to produce different effects. And nobody in Vanikke has much cared, anyway, since the electricity went out; they've certainly had much more important things to consider than rigging up old-fashioned fire-heated irons.
       I lay the blouse down. That's for warmer weather. I pick up a sweater in my favorite deep pine green. I have darned the holes quite neatly, and washed almost all the blood out; you can hardly tell anymore.
       The boys have gallantly allowed me to go into the back of the truck to change from my scarf to clothing more appropriate for the weather. I do wistfully wish that these garments had gone through a nice, warm drying cycle first, or at least felt the touch of an iron's heat; I shiver when I pull them on. But they warm up soon and it feels so nice to cover my goosebumpy arms and shoulders again! And really, you can hardly tell that this sweater ever saw any grief at all.
       When I emerge I see that the others have already dressed outside, I daresay as hastily as the dear boys could in the nip of the rising wind. Even now Anselmo still buttons up his coat. We look at each other's dishevelment, laugh heartily, and climb back in the cab.)

       I feel a callused hand shake me gently."You up for another go, Missy?"
       "I think so." I blink, reorienting myself, noticing the old man's jacket spread over me and handing it back. "Yes." And I take his hand to let him pull me to my feet.
       Only when I've stepped around some particularly dense screens of trees, shrubs and vines do I see that Cyran's already there, wrapped in a blanket and shivering on the planks of a curious platform in the woods, along with several of the sturdiest denizens of Mustesar--a muscular deaf man, a hunchback who who would have been quite tall otherwise, and an unfocused matron who whispers to herself constantly. The hunchback signs to the other two, and then they tuck Cyran into what looks like a coffin-sized basket that he steadies, with ropes and pulleys at either end, attached to a…
       "Zipline," I say.
       The old man grins. "This isn't the first time we've gotten the wounded away in a hurry. Out-of-town soldiers don't look too closely in this direction--too many cliffs hidden in the foliage. They figure nobody could flee far this way."
       "But not to the university," says the woman, "Oh no no no, not there anymore!" She grips my shirt in both gnarled hands, her eyes suddenly urgent and wide. "It all went up in fire, fire everywhere, burned and ground down to dust! Ashes to ashes and dust to dust so many die and die and DIE!" Drops of spittle hit my face.
       "I know," I say, gently disengaging her hands. "I was there."
       At that her mouth opens, then shuts again, and then she backs off, suddenly respectful and perhaps a little bit afraid. "Blood and fire," she mutters, crossing herself. "We all have passed such tests that God would cringe at if He knew."
       The hunchback points to my shoulder and my hand so that the deaf man knows what injuries to avoid. After that the big fellow doesn't need told what to do; he'd performed this service many times. He lifts me up as carefully as if I'd cracked my spine and lays me on a nest of blankets in a second basket. He straps me down with the strips of leather fastened on the basket's inside, snapping the buckles with practiced hands, and then I lose sight of him, staring up at clouds. A light pattering of rain hits my face, but hopefully we won't get much.
       Then they seem to forget me for the moment. I hear feet on boards, bumps and scrapes, as they put Cyran into position. The woman keeps muttering inaudibly, but no one speaks otherwise; I saw before that she knows Charadocian peasant-sign, too. These three must have worked together for years. I hear a faint whirr start close and fade into the distance.
       Now I hear and feel scraping beneath me as the basket begins to move, dragged into position on the platform. I look up above me, seeing the line, and over it branches sparkle everywhere a twig can hold a drop of rain, and I feel glad, taken care of, nothing required of me except to lie here strapped in safe and secure.
       Suddenly they push me off and I'm flying! Flying without effort, without burden or expectation, just watching the leaves and the branches and the clouds and the bright-feathered singing birds, helpless yet helped, strapped down yet free, freer in fact than I've felt in a long, long time. The wind rushes over my basket without stinging my eyes, the sky opens up without consuming me or dropping me, my course laid out for me. I feel like I've died and sense myself pulled towards God, maybe to face judgment but I don't care, right now I'm in Heaven and whatever happens later, well, that's not now.
       The basket slows, then stops. For a moment I rock there between the blues and whites of the sky and the unseen chasm behind my back. Then, slowly, a rope starts tugging me to the other side. I jolt towards my destination, rhythmically, steadily, in good hands. I hope I don't burden them too much, the way everybody keeps trying to feed me all the time, but they don't seem to falter. My feet start to tip above my head a bit. I'm okay with that. I can feel waves of happiness swelling down towards me from the direction I head.
       Then a few final tugs jerk at me and again the basket scrapes under me, new hands unstrap me and help me sit up. And then Kiril and Lufti tackle me with hugs before I can even get out, tipping the basket over as all three of us fall on the boards and the rebels around us laugh.
       "Welcome back!" Kiril gasps at last, hair in her face and tears on her laughing cheeks, as Lufti grins with an arm around her shoulders.



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