THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
VIII: The Final Conflagration
The Ones We've Lost
Thursday, May 15, 2709
A shortcut off a loop of the curve of the main road brings us to narrow ledge-travel for a brief space, where even mules and donkeys have a hard time passing. Even Cyran has to dismount here. Alysha takes a position in front of hir, holding the barrel of a rifle, while Khouri takes the position behind hir, carrying the stock, so that the weapon forms a kind of fence between Cyran and the brink, should e stumble. E keeps the hand that e can raise on Alysha's shoulder and the other bound in front of hir, and sometimes, I can see, e must lean heavily on her, yet e keeps on going, tottering and thin, but on hir feet.
Braulio and Hekut make a similar arrangement for Chulan. Damien brings up the rear, leading the animals in a linked chain of reins. I hear him briefly get sick behind us, over the side of the road. Mountain-boy or not, this is not a path for anyone unsteady on his feet. Kiril and I at least have solid legs and clear eyes, whatever else our troubles, especially since my fever's taking a break for today. The wind whistles between rock outcroppings, our feet make soft sounds on the grit before the clopping hooves, and each of us can hear our own hearts beat.
And oh how I miss Lufti! I hadn't realized how much I had come to rely on the poor, mad oracle whenever things got dicey. Not that he could have told us anything in particular about our passage that we didn't already know, I just feel precarious and weak and want mystical assurances.
A twist shows me a distant view of the point where we shall turn once more onto a wider road, where the cliffs will dwindle down to banks, now amber sandstone surmounted by twisty mountain pines and sparse outbursts of grass and leggy weeds. Beyond that, in the distance, stretches a wide space bare of trees or grass, just mossy rock scoured by a long-melted glacier. I ought to feel relieved, but I like that prospect no more than this lip of rock trying to pass for a path. I've never taken the fastest way to Koboros before--no, wait, I did touch on it at the very end, when we first delivered Rashid to his new post. It's too public, too open. But Cyran has urgent need of a surgeon, and hopefully we killed the only military witnesses to our presence.
Still, that road ahead sort of reminds me of the beaches of home. Golden days of golden sand and childhood. How could so much time have passed that I’ve forgotten?
"Marry me," he’d said. And I'd just laughed and threw seaweed at him, dangling in his foam-white hair. He threw the seaweed back, and laughed, himself. Even the waves sounded like they chuckled to themselves in soft, sandy hisses. "Come on—why not?"
"We’re just kids, Jesse! What do we know about marriage?"
I remember how he took my hand, pale as ice yet warm, so warm in mine! "Maybe someday?"
"Maybe someday," I agreed. But someday never came. We lost all that when he died in a neurotoxic rage that burned up everything in him.
I look at Kiril now, carefully marching ahead of me, as though a whisper could shatter her but keeping on, always keeping on. No, someday never comes, but at least she had her yesterdays.
"Deirdre," she says quietly, "You're right. I think I’m pregnant."
(This funeral garb that Mariya has brought me isn't too bad. I would have preferred not to wear black, which looks ghastly on me, but these are white and red. To my relief, the blouse is actually undyed--softer than the pure white that would have made me look sickly, and the red of the skirt and mantle has the purply tones that I like, although also a bit on the brownish side. Also they're fresher than myself, for the Romani account it inappropriate to bath on the day of a funeral, or to comb one's hair, let alone put it up. But we all look like wild women today, so that's all right. Still, I wish I had a mirror to tell me of the overall effect. Or maybe not. Maybe I'd rather not know.
They even opened up their pantries for me, once I told them what I wanted to make, though food right now is also out of the question. I wouldn't call myself a competent field pharmacologist if I couldn't whip up a decent hangover remedy from the herbs of any country that I land in. The elders have agreed that this beverage, though novel, is permissible in this time of mourning, as it's medicinal.
Ozwald, dressed like all of us in red and white, gulps at his glass like he'd drown himself in it. Anselmo and Dayin make faces at its bitter taste, but force it down anyway. Lijeh savors his.
"Not bad," he says, and rather wistfully adds, "It sort of reminds me of coffee." Thoughtfully he rolls himself a cigarette, offers tobacco to us (we decline) and then takes several slow, relishing pulls before he says, his words smoky on the air, "You've convinced me--anyone who returns three of our own to us, in the face of so much horror, deserves our trust." He shakes his head sadly. "The lost ones, forced to become mullos, have sated their need for vengeance through you, Zanne, and will trouble no one, now." Another pull on his cigarette, then he sadly regards the swirls of smoke. "Ozwald and Dayin may come with us for a year and a day, to learn the handling of carts and horses, and," he adds with a raised brow, "learn as well as the ways of grown men, before striking off on their own as All Kinds Nomads with whoever wants to join them. But while they remain they must respect our customs and follow our rules."
Shyly Dayin asks, "May we observe our own customs privately as well?"
Slowly Lijeh nods. "If you stay discreet about it, and don't interfere with ours. But if the only meat we have is pork, you'll either eat it or fast."
Dayin shrugs. "And am I not fasting now, in respect for your ways?"
Ozwald tries to smile. "You might not have to, later, though, not completely. Both of you will love my homegrown Heathen sprout-bread!"
Dayin grins. "Who am I to turn up my nose at an offer like that? I'm not all that strict about kosher bread."
"There's kosher bread?"
"Don't worry about it. So long as I can throw a crumb into the fire, I'll be okay."
Lijeh stands up and so we do likewise. "Speaking of ritual, it's time for the funeral of our three lost kinfolk."
We turn towards Tshura's flower-bedecked box, surrounded by burning candles now nearly melted down to the ground. Women bring bouquets of more flowers, which they only cut for the dead. I pick up the leather-bound box that now serves as Tshura's coffin, and I carry her into the procession following the lead of musicians playing her dirge. I notice that Ozwald has looped one of his sprouting-bags around the old radio's handle by way of an offering. Anselmo has stuffed some bills into the leather. I notice that Lijeh has discretely jammed the dial with some metal splinters, just in case the funeral doesn't satisfy our late friends after all and they return to undeadness again. But I think they'll be okay.
When the wailing starts I wail, too, and the tears gush forth like I have no more dam for them left, but that's okay, everybody weeps around me just as hard, just from imagining what the three had been through, empathizing from what we've all experienced. We have set aside a sacred time for tears, each heart-wrenching sob tugging out more sobs, back and forth, till we find strange comfort in the sharing of our grief, so overcome that we stumble, bumping into each other, steadied by each other. Then at last we lay my guardian, my most faithful friend, to rest.)
The shortcut starts to widen at last, sinking down to the broad road ahead, the color of Kiril's hair. She drops back to walk beside me.
"He's not dead, Deirdre, not really." My poor waif rests her hand on her belly, trying to look brave, stray hair from her braids making a sandstorm mist around her face. "He gave me a part of himself before he left us." And I nod, and give no sign that I mourn not only for Lufti, but also for my sweet, long-lost Jesse, who gave me my first kiss, who left me nothing else of himself than that.