Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 18

Paths to Hidden Healing



Thursday, May 8, 2709, continued

       (Gates of Knowledge but this seems hopeless! Still more miles, still more nothing useful. Empty pastures. Broken farms. Overgrown fields. Surely we've traveled far enough in the right direction...unless it's the wrong direction? What if we heard the instructions wrong? This village of color-chemists begins to feel mythical.)
       ("She's looking at it the wrong way," George says suddenly. "Sheeeee--the great She!" He spreads his hands on his upper chest in surprise, then giggles uneasily. "I must say that I like her perspective better than a rat's!"
       Jake says, "Disengage, George. Let go of telepathy. Let it integrate into the larger gift."
       "Oh, I'm not the telepath here." He blinks a moment, then stares at Jake. "She knows you. She's thinking about you. But she doesn't even know that she's scanning for you." His forehead puckers. "Something's...somethings not right."
       "Leave her to me, George. Come over hear, down this bank, here, to the creek. Sit on this rock. Listen to the creek, the rhythmless rhythms, gaze on the shimmers dancing to the same music...now take off your shoes and socks...now plunge your feet in!"
       "HOOOOOOO!" George jerks his feet up as fast as they dipped in. A wide range of blasphemies rush out of his mouth in a gush as furious as this seasonal snow-melt stream.
       I feel compelled to point out, "Jesus didn't wear underpants, George. He wore a loincloth." More blasphemies answer me, then the boy's shivers turn to chuckles as he starts to pelt Jake with wet sods pulled up from the water's edge.
       Laughing, Jake dodges and says, "I shocked you out of it, didn't I?" Then he brushes off his clothes while George dries his feet and puts his shoes and socks back on. I can almost feel the tingle of returning warmth…
       "Disengage, Randy." I stare at Jake in surprise, but he says nothing more.)
       ("We're looking at this the wrong way," I say. "Get off the main highway, Anselmo, and turn back the way we came, but on the old access road."
       "It doesn't parallel the highway all the way, though. Back a few miles it curves around a hill."
       "We might as well see what's behind that hill, shouldn't we?"
       Ozwald offers, "More hills. And more after that."
       "Which are more likely to host a community that doesn't want found by just anybody, wouldn't you agree?"
       "I hope you're right," Anselmo says, going down the nearest access road, carefully navigating around an old, burnt-out wreck.
       "I'm always right, darling." Except, of course, when I'm not.
       And sure enough, from here, beyond the curtain of trees meant to muffle the noise and smell of the highway, we soon can see smoke rise from chimneys on the green hillside just a little ways beyond. It looks like a town, not a farm complex. A very small yet seemingly intact town!
       Barriers block the road that leads towards it. I give this my full attention: a mass of all sorts of junk bars the way, anchoring barbed wire fencing in either direction. Several wrecked vehicles supply the main bulk, including a truck bigger than Anselmo's, not even on blocks let alone wheels, and a large but crumple-fronted sedan set on its side, with all manner of broken beams, urbanite, cracked engine blocks and other refuse cemented or welded onto the mess, to fill in the blanks. In the middle, across a paved stretch wide enough to only admit one vehicle at a time, a mishmash of poles and pipes block the way, but I see that one could move them, one side being hinged by a long length of pipe set loosely on a pole, if one were to pull out certain other poles on the inward-bent other side, not accessible from out here.
       A number of large wooden boxes sit by the roadblock on our side, contrasting with the gate in their tidy symmetry, paited in different colors, latched shut but not locked. Behind them I see a long, shaded bulletin board of several sections, covered with neat rows of papers pinned in place.
       We get out to read the bulletins. They detail instructions for leaving orders for clothing, paper, tools, and machinery (directing us to notebooks and pens within clear, rainproof boxes attached to each larger wooden box) and suggested barter options that one might leave in return for the goods ordered, usually in the form of food, reusable discards, or more books. I find a list of kosher rules and another describing the kinds of books that they most desire.
       It seems that one may also check out books from yet another list, but may only read them or copy them in a nearby shelter (a map shows the way to it.) If one copies a book, one must leave the copy with the book until a resident has checked to make sure that the copy and the original match word for word, punctuation for punctuation--then, if approved, one may take the old version home to keep. One can gain credit towards other purchases if one adds value, such as illustrations or illumination, or a well-made binding.
       And then bingo! I find instructions on how to apply for medical school, plus security regulations for a weekly free clinic.
       "A clinic!" I cry. "Could this be more perfect?" I point the instructions out to the others as I go to peek into one of the boxes.
       "Stop right there, missy." I stare into the barrel of a gun poking out of what I took to be a pile of scrap metal and pottery leaning against the back end of the truck. "Just because you can't see us doesn't mean that we don't stand guard," says a tenor voice. It seems that the truck and junkpile form a bunker.
       I shrug as prettily as I can. "A girl can get curious, can't she? I've never seen a set-up as excellent as this." I put up my hands, and with a friendly wiggle I ask, "Would you like to frisk me? I'm quite harmless." I do a mincing turn to show a 360 degree view of my lack of weaponry.
       "Nobody's harmless these days. For all I know you'll shoot fire at me from your fingertips."
       "I hate to disappoint you, darling, but that's not me. And combustors don't shoot fire from their fingertips. The fire just kindles wherever they think it into being."
       "So who ever lives long enough to find out the details? But I won't argue with you. Put your hand in the cup in the wall and I'll sort you out well enough."
       I see it, embedded in the mishmash--a big, bright rose mug, cracked and chipped a bit, set in on its side, no doubt covered in a magentine glaze, with the bottom apparently poking into the truck itself. I bite back a sudden wave of nausea and fear, then do as instructed, pushing my fingers into the cold, slick surface, while shielding any sensitive material in my background but leaving my intentions and goodwill wide open. Chances are that that's all a novice could read, anyway--oops, mustn't patronize, not when he's got a gun, Zanne!
       "You're hiding something!"
       "Yes, of course I am--I'm an agent of the Tilián, darling, trying my best to fix the mess we're in, here. Yet you can still read my heart, can't you?"
       "...hmmm...arrogant, yet humbled quite a bit by the Confusion. Not stable…"
       "Who is these days?" I try to sound more chipper than I feel.
       "...bi-curious but recently burned…"
       "All right that's enough!" I jerk my hand out of the cup, only to feel Ozwald tackle me, crying, "No, Zanne, no! Please don't blast him--oh please!" Then with surprising fury he screams at the hidden guard, "We've got a cure for the Confusion, you sick perv, but if you don't want it fine! Stay sick, then!" and starts to drag me away.
       "Wait--you don't understand!" the man cries out. "I didn't hurt your friend for fun. I had to expose a sensitive memory to drop her defenses enough to read her real intentions." He sounds surprisingly young when he says, "It's the worst part of the job, actually."
       This feels like one of the hardest things I've ever done, my colorful life notwithstanding, but I twist easily out of Ozwald's grip, push my hand back into the cup and coolly say, "Proceed, then." And I feel his mind connect with mine, and I don't sense any prurience there, more embarrassment than anything, but his community couldn't spare his delicate feelings--they need every psychometrist or telepath in the community to take a shift guarding.
       "Poor boy," I murmur. "This past year hasn't been a party for anyone, has it?"
       "You're legit," he says with wonder. "You really do have a cure for the Confusion! Oh HaShem be praised! We've been trying all year, but our pharmacist died in a bad clinic." I shudder, picking up from him a sense of just what he means by that. And still they treat the sick?
       I come to myself at the creak of poles sliding out of the gate. "Come on in, all three of you. Here, drive the truck on in. I'll watch over it while you meet the others." He's even younger than I thought, his face barely brushed by a mustache, his side-locks braided and neatly tied back with a yellow ribbon, wearing tough black trousers and a bright turquoise and yellow shirt of homespun brushed to a decent semblance of flannel. Anselmo and I nod to each other; we can read from him that we can trust him, too.)

       We reach a more solid stretch of land, but the lightweight boats don't look too hard to carry. Not that I would know--nobody lets me carry anything. Marduk and Alysha hack down canes and switches to quickly weave into a travois, padded by several blankets and ponchos, to which they strap Cyran. When they look ready to make one for me I say, "No, that's okay. I'm not feverish anymore." Alysha gives me a look, but doesn't actually say, "Then why are we escorting you to Koboros?"
       Still, Kiril and Lufti stick close to either side of me in case I show any sign of keeling over. I feel both annoyed and touched. Together we climb up the bank to the land that stays dry even in flood season.
       Braulio and Chaska carry their coracle between them, not because the weight actually requires two of them, it's just easier to maneuver that way. That leaves Kuchi free to trot alongside Damien, listening to the Bard telling stories.
       "They say that rocks will dance when God remembers the Charadoc. Some call that a cynical saying, but others claim that it happens all the time. Maybe it happens late at night, and we sleep through it, but when we wake things seem better somehow, not so bad. And sometimes we feel so dragged down low, we walk so heavy on the land that we don’t feel the quiver under our feet, the joy so strong yet so suppressed that it trembles with barely contained energy, and then the rocks will dance the minute we turn our heads away. And when that happens people do hear the rocks dancing, but they don’t know they do. They think they hear the grinding of their own teeth." And Kuchi reaches out and takes Damien's hand.
       The path starts to look familiar. These trees, these hills...I know that I've seen them before. That crook in a bough where Lufti briefly perched. The rock that looks vaguely like a Buddha. The rise and fall of the land. And those twin chimneys. Ah yes, the blackened twin chimneys and their ovens, the only thing left standing of the manor where we had hoped to find refuge, not so long ago. But the smoke on the air doesn't smell like breakfast anymore.



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