Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 26

In a Tight Spot



Monday, May 12, 2709, continued

       (I feel cozy, tucked into a crack in a wide, flat, gray-white boulder, quite content to lie here with the warm, late-afternoon sun pouring down on me, and the cool rock to either side.
       Gradually it dawns on me that I shouldn't feel so comfortable, that in fact I feel the euphoria of fever. The sunlight doesn't actually reach me, though I see a jagged strip of blue above. And we have gone too high up in the mountains for so much warmth.
       Oh yeah. Infected involuntary mastectomy. Sasa has wanted to do that for years, I suppose, though he'd never admit it.
       Alysha must have stuffed me in here for my protection. I smell blood and gunpowder. The scent brings back memories of shouting and commotion, explosions of bullets against rock, dust and smoke in the air, but I hadn't registered it at the time as more than some dark and distant clash of shadows. I can even remember someone leaping over me. Lufti, was it? But I seemed less conscious then of what went on around me than now; it seems to play back for me like something I'd recorded while not paying attention.
       I press my face against the cooling stone. Whatever's going on, Alysha can handle it. I can always count on her, whenever I can pry her away from Marduk.)

       I have stopped the bleeding. Now, while Lufti lies limp in my lap, I splint Kiril's arm between two of her wooden spoons with one good hand and a little help from her. Lufti stares straight up at the sky above us, smiling. I can barely hear him say, "Christmas. I shall dance...there...every Christ...mas." And then his bleeding starts up again.
       ("I used to be a stock analyst," says the shepherd, whose beard now reaches his chest, complete with curls of premature silver in there with the black. "My country bled everywhere I turned, but I tried to do my job anyway, shoving down my fears and my frustration and doing the cursed job as if saving portfolios from a crash could staunch the nation's wounds. When others walked out, some crying, some saying, "It's over, Samir. There is no economy anymore. Your graphs are symbols pointing at nothing," I still poured over my ledgers and notes, watching lines on screens drop and drop. Yet the realm of symbols can have great power, I thought, my mind already fevered though I didn't know it, so I kept at it with a flashlight when the lights went out, paper and pencil when the screens went blank. I tried to find patterns in the numbers and the graphs to tell me who to blame for the coffee running out and the toilets not flushing any longer and the screaming going on and on outside my window. But then objects shot out of my hands in unnatural ways, sometimes hitting the ceiling, sometimes the windows, sometimes me. Then the stuff on my desk started flying around the office. Then so did the furniture, with no one there but me. And then I fled."
       He sighs, gazing out over his flock as they graze on the knee-high grass of a golf course. Lambs abound, frolicking and bleating in cute, high voices, almost offensive in their sweetness, considering the suffering in this land. "This...thing, this activity, followed me no matter where I went, smashing up everything that I or anybody else tried to rebuild around me. I had nothing in my modern experience to explain what kept happening to me, so I looked more and more into my ancestral past, plunging into the alam al-mithal, the symbol-world halfway between the human world and God. Eventually I gathered that a djinn had decided to follow me around." He chuckles. "It made sense at the time. So I sought out real mystics in my community, and their answer brought me worse news than a powerful supernatural enemy."
       He blinks with suddenly watering eyes at the sunlight and the cloud-shadow dancing across a field of insolently innocent lambs and their mothers. "They understood the difference between a real djinn and all of the various differential diagnoses--one of which is magentine phenomenon. I learned from them how we had all been poisoned. I learned how my anger--all of my groping after scapegoats for the ruin of my world, anger at my losses, even anger at myself for not adapting well had made
me the djinn.")
       Rock to my back and rock to my left side props me up, rough and cool but not as cold as the open air. Rock before me presses my feet and helps me keep my knees up. To my right Kiril huddles as close as she can get to shield her lover as best she can from whatever weather can reach us in this cleft of stone. I smell the smoke of the burning convent in the snatches of wind that the granite lets through. I envy the heat below, envy the dead nuns on whom the flames waste their vitality.
       No, wait, what am I thinking? There's no convent anywhere near here, burning or otherwise. Has the fever come back again? Will it never give me peace?
       Lufti stirs in a soft whimper, but he’s not really with us anymore. Kiril snakes her hand under my arm to clasp his shoulder, but I don’t know whether he feels it or not. I’ll assume for her sake that he does, so I won’t shift from the awkward position that she’s put me in.
       I say words taught to me to boost the immune system, to a body that has nearly given up. “I love you, Lufti,” I breathe onto his neck. I spend my warmth on him, having nothing else to offer.
       (Samir's face brightens at the sight of yellow blossoms amid the green. "Celestials,"he says. "Very tasty for the sheep, you know." He walks towards the dandelions and the sheep follow, soon picking up the scent and going for the juicy weeds.
       "I know now, at least," I say, walking with him. "Duly noted. Sheep find dandelions tasty." I sound lame even to myself. But my bruised mind doesn't seem to faze him one bit.
       "That's the best thing about my research before things fell apart. I wanted to learn everything about the old ways. I became fascinated with how my ancestors domesticated sheep and goats. Obsessed, even. The elders encouraged me, because tending the animals that I'd rescued cooled my temper. I gobbled up every book on the subject that I could get my hands on before the lights went out completely, and learned more from the sheep themselves." He laughs, strolling through the fragrant grass, with the baaing all around us. "Lucky thing I did."
       "You seem to have a good relationship with Tikvah Kibbutz."
       He shrugs. "I raise wool, they weave and dye, and we both like our lamb chops harvested respectfully. How should we not be friends?"
       "So it doesn't bother you that they're a different kind?"
       Again he shrugs. "It used to. I used to blame Jews in particular--it wasn't logical, but I had left logic long behind in my rage. And all it got me was shattered windows through the cold winter nights and my belongings smashing each other to bits. The elders helped me understand that all this blaming of other kinds just came with the madness of the Confusion. We're learning all over again that we need each other. Maybe not to pretend that we don't each have our own customs, but at least to live as neighbors and see each other's beauty and the value that each provides. Wallah, we're even headed for a rendezvous with a band of Romany for some livestock trading, and I used to hate them even worse."
       "Romany?" Ozwald cries and leaves the lamb that he'd been playing with to hurry up to us.
       Samir frowns at him, stiffening. "Yes indeed, young German, and I count them among my friends no matter what people say. Our paths cross fairly often, and they have dealt nothing but honest with me." To his surprise Ozwald whoops with joy.
       "Oh, I've missed them so, so much!" And to Samir's utter shock Ozwald hugs him.)

       I open my eyes, my head leaned back against the cold, pale rock, staring at more rock in front of me as it purples in the dimming light. It’s so cold. It’s so cold and quiet. I hold the wounded boy in my lap, my arm around him, my knees drawn up with my feet braced on stone in front of me, my hair draped over his head onto my knees to hold in as much of my breath’s warmth upon him as I can.
       No use. I stopped the bleeding again, but we’re losing the battle against shock. How much can you put a child through before he hasn’t any defenses left?
       I miss him already. I miss the naive child that he used to be a year ago, posturing at learning how to fight but knowing nothing about it, really, sane and playful and full of future possibilities. Even if he pulls through this he won't ever be that boy again.
       Really, Deirdre? No use? How many have you pulled from the brink before this sonling's turn came 'round?
       I feel the warmth of Kiril pressed in beside me. She still believes in me. I mustn't let her down.
       (I miss them, the sweet nuns who used to take care of Mama before the government took the mental hospital out of their control. I moan as Alysha helps me climb out of my shelter. Their hands wouldn't have had gun calluses on them. They had a different roughness, from brooms and scrub-brushes and rosary beads. But not guns, never that, whatever the government might say.
       Alysha helps me onto a mat, with mules and donkeys tethered between us and the downward cliff. "Braulio and Khouri think they got them all," she says, "But we'd better post guards tonight in case."
       "Good thinking," I say. Ï grip her wrist and pull her close to me. "Do you remember the convent that we tried to save?"
       She pushes me back against my stony bed. "Just rest, Cyran. We did our best, and so did they."
       "I still remember the smell of burning, 'Lysha. Sometimes, when the shadows get too dark, I smell it all again."
       "It's just the fever. You've got no defenses against the past, but…"
       "I can
taste them," I say, helpless to stop myself. "When that one nun fell from the wall, her blood splashed out right into my mouth and...and...Alysha, I was so hungry that it actually tasted good!"
       She pulls a blanket over me, and then another. "Get some sleep, Cyran." And her hard, gun-calloused hand gently wipes away my tears.)

       Somehow, through the long twilight deepening towards night, emotions well up in me again, long after I thought myself gone numb. I have come around the world to love a little boy about to die. All of my training comes to this. “And you too, Kiril.” I thought she couldn’t press closer. She does. For these two I am no monster, no Tilián witch, never have been. I can never pay back that debt.
       Who am I kidding? I have transformed these persons from children into protégés of horror. Why should they reject me?
       “Tell us about your childhood,” Kiril urges, “In your own country.” She always likes these tales best, she who has never known true childhood.
       I search my mind for an account that I haven’t given her yet. “I told you about illusionists, didn’t I?”
       She nods.
       “Well, they had this special place that illusionists kept hidden. You could walk by it a hundred times and see no more than a bare lot yellow with weeds, and a blue sky beyond it. It clung to the edge of a cliff, much like the one by the road except for being a beach-cliff, and the sky stayed the same behind it, more or less, so they had no trouble maintaining this illusion. At the proper seasons they’d put a cloud behind it, or sometimes seagulls, and change the light for night or day, so if you didn’t know what to look for, you’d never notice that the gulls flew the same pattern over and over.
       “Still, everyone sees through the illusion at least once in a life.” My legs long to stretch, and my injuries throb, but I tune it out, trying to lose myself in memory. “There comes a time when it calls to you, at dawn or sunset, when the colors in the sky demand to be seen as they are. When this happens, you see a part of the cliff extend a bit farther than you thought, to rise a little on a hill. You see a green lawn all ‘round a lovely white house of wood and wicker-screen, and the sun-colors wash it in rose and gold. In front of it grows a tree, of pale and mottled bark, the leaves broad, dark and glossy. It leans over for the length of the house, till it reaches the ground, and then it grows upwards again And its silver bark takes on the colors of the sunset, too.”
       Wind howls; it plays the crevice like the mouthpiece of a flute. “I saw it as a girl, and it called me closer. At first I leaned on the tree-trunk, just to relish all that I saw and the bark beneath my arms. Then I went inside.” Is it just the shadow of my hair, darkening the darkness, or has Lufti’s lips turned blue? “First I entered a dim hall, no light but the fading glow come in by the door that I'd left open behind me. It showed, oh, several doors, maybe a dozen or so, I didn’t count. I chose one to the right.
       “At first I found the room completely dark. And then, Kiril, a light began to glow, down around floor-level, a bluish-purply glimmer, fascinating and inviting. Suddenly it flared up into lights of all colors; there glowed, in miniature all before me, a city of jewels! It had bushes of clustered beryl, each tiny leaf with veins, and rose quartz towers, ponds of turquoise, lamps of topaz, diamond windows and tourmaline-people in the doors. It had everything! A toy treasure city, and me the child to play with it!”
       I fight the chattering of my teeth to continue the tale. My shivering makes my voice shake, despite my efforts. “Oh, but it was huge. It filled the entire room; my feet stood in the only bare place. I longed so badly to play with it, but I couldn’t walk in the jewel-city without crushing something precious underfoot.”
       I sigh with the memory. And there, in the warmth that I tried to make, my breath forms a cloud of cold. “Then something marvelous happened, Kiril. My longing took form, and I began to fly.”
       “No. You couldn’t.” I glance at her. “You’d need your flit.”
       “Oh yes I could. Hidden among the other jewels, they’d placed crystals of magentine. I had stumbled upon a testing-place to find my Gift. I hovered over the city and played.”
       “Why did you fall down here, Deirdre? You cut your hand on the stone, and you're starting to show bruises. Why didn’t you just fly?”
       Oh lord, she didn't hit her head, did she? “You're not thinking, dearheart. I need a crystal focus for that. I lost mine, remember? But I did use my Gift a little bit.”
       “You did?”
       “Yes. If I concentrate, I can make other things lighter...or other people. That’s how I got you both down here safely.” We both glance down at her splinted arm. "Sort of safely. At least we got here alive." I wonder how much more I could have protected her if I hadn't so depleted myself.
       “Oh.” She plays a moment with a strand of my hair, the other hand still on her darling, who begins to feel depressingly chill and stiff against my breast. “Can you make me lighter when we climb out again?”
       I sigh. “Just this once, Kiril, but it costs me. Nothing comes of nothing.”
       "I'm sorry--I don't know why I even asked that of you.
       "Because sometimes we all need taken care of sometime, and you've been taking care of Lufti and me for miles."
       Another silence follows, which she breaks presently to say, “Did you know that Lufti died while we were talking?”
       “I guessed as much.”
       Her red eyes look fiercer than ever, and brim with a threatened spill. And yet she sounds almost coy, like a real little girl, when she says, “I don’t suppose he needs anymore warmth.”
       “No, I suppose not.” I stretch cramped muscles to lay aside the little corpse, for now, curled up in the same position that he’s maintained for hours, inflexible now. I feel a pull and a crackle in my clothes as the blood breaks the bonds into which it had dried. Then I resume my place, though my legs ache to change, though my buttocks feel like they’ve ground a place into the stone.
       “Come here, little one.” And the girl, not so little as when we met, snuggles into the place which the dead has left vacant. She feels soft and alive after him, returning warmth back to me with her face buried in my clothes, her breath hot and steady, her free arm wrapped tight around my ribs to hold off the grief and the cold and the descending night. Her body trembles with the chill, it rebels against cold, not about to give in and die, not just yet. I cradle her aliveness, grateful that she shelters me from tears that neither one of us can afford in the bite of that wind.



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