Time to read: about 45 minutes
They call it the Dead Valley, and the name is enough to make the old woman cry. She remembers when an emerald canopy hugged the mountains in a luscious blanket. When the dawn and dusk were greeted with the cries of birds and monkeys and insects, a fierce chorus beyond the need for harmony. When the valley was as it should be—dangerous and unstill and hot with life.
But she doesn’t waste much time reminiscing, because grief feeds on memory, and she has other things to do. Right now, for example, her attention’s on the three girls coming down the sandy path from the ruins of the temple, shadows like distorted doppelgängers at their feet. Two of them are foreign—long-haired, bronze-skinned—but the one in the middle is local. Or, at least, her family is. Her tight shorts and her sleeveless top are like nothing a local girl would wear, though, and there’s no hint of spice in her sweat. Instead, there’s the acrid smell of bad luck, like the smell of a landfill upwind, growing as she approaches.
The old woman closes her eyes and reaches through the thicket of possibilities that crowd about the girl. Eventually, she sees one black and glossy skein that runs through her lifeline like an infection. Of course it involves a man. Of course it involves a child. In the slimy foam that froths around the lines of consequence lurk an angry family and poverty and missed chances. All this and also loneliness so heavy it will crush the breath from her chest.
When she opens her eyes, the girls are nearly on her. She heaves herself to her feet. One of the foreign girls scurries giggling around to the other side of her friends, but the other two pause. The old woman quickly flicks through the great tangle of necklaces hanging from her forearm and holds one out to the local-looking girl. It’s a simple charm, aquamarine interspersed with tiny ant-bat skulls, strung on a leather tong soaked in tincture of isonflower.
‘For luck,’ she lies, and smiles.
The local-looking girl curls her lip.
They move on, but the old woman hobbles after them.
‘No, for luck,’ she says. ‘You can pay whatever you like.’
‘What’s she saying?’ says her friend.
‘She says I can pay whatever I want.’
‘Anything you want,’ says the old woman. ‘Two hundred kubli. Five midals. A smile. Anything.’
The local-looking girl takes the necklace and holds it against her arm and the blue looks vivid and fresh against her dark skin. One of her friends nods and smiles and in that instant the old woman learns two things: that the local-looking girl will keep the necklace, and that the real bond in this trio is between these two.
In the end, the girl buys it for more than it cost to make and puts it on immediately. Most likely it’ll last her seven and a half years. After that, the leather will snap and the beads and skulls will fall into a drain in a city far away. Most likely this will happen on a street after a rain shower when the rain lies glittering on the grainy asphalt. The girl will mourn its loss.
That night her ovaries will wake again after their long slumber, though she won’t have noticed that they were ever asleep.
The old woman heads up, puffing and satisfied, towards the temple. The damp wreck about her is so different from the place she grew up in. Still, she stops in the gathering shadows and remembers the last time she was here. The sound of thunder and rain. The hacking growl of guns. There was a boy with her and he was stealing glances at her whenever he had the chance. A golden weasel was standing on the altar.
‘Yes?’ He’d said.
‘Yes,’ she’d said, and looked at the boy.
‘Yes,’ the boy’d said, and smiled.
In the present, the old woman hobbles over in the gloom and mustiness to the altar. Past a soggy cigarette butt and an errant pen cap and an oily plastic wrapper flapping like a blinded moth against the wall. She finds what she’s looking for around the back of the altar—a single blue flower growing out of the stone, deep blue and glowing like the last hint of sunlight in the evening sky.
She reaches out and pauses. Then she snaps it.
A shudder percusses the temple, as low and soft as the shaking of a tuning fork. She feels it in her bones—a gorgeous trill—and sighs.
A thousand miles away, an old man wakes in the middle of the night. First he smiles. Then he cries.
The girl wakes at dawn and dew is dripping from the leaves about her. The boy’s crouching nearby, peering into the crowded undergrowth. The safety on his rifle is off. Shirtless and poised and taut, he looks as natural a part of the jungle as anything else. The girl feels a warmth in her stomach and on her face and between her thighs before she notices something is wrong and pushes it all away. The boy raises a finger to his lips without looking at her, and points. The girl slinks over and takes up position beside him and eases the safety back on her own rifle.
Somehow, a small group of Redcaps has set up camp not a hundred meters away. They’re gathered around their morning campfire, guns slung casually over their shoulders, splitting and skinning rodents and grilling them over the flames. The girl’s stomach rumbles. So does the boy’s, so loud that the girl worries the Redcaps will hear. In ordinary times, they’d have found the boy and the girl in seconds. Part of her wishes they would. That they would take her in and give her one of those bullet-belching Eikuan machine guns. Then she could swagger about with confidence, a huge sash of bullets the size of thumbs scything across her chest, just like the big woman holding two gutted monkeys by the tail who now joins the others.
‘Nothing around,’ the woman says, tossing her catch onto the flames. ‘I don’t like it. Let’s eat and get going.’
‘What about the two priestlings?’ says one of the men. The girl evaluates him—mousy, bucktoothed, oddly hairy. Sinew, but not much muscle. He’d be fast, but she’d be faster.
‘Let the traitor deal with them. Let’s just get back and get our share from the temple.’
The girl takes aim. The boy squeezes her shoulder, once, gently. She glances at him, and the moment passes.
They sneak away through the tickling damp. When they’re far enough away, they climb a tree and move along its lower branches, ten or twenty meters above the seminude forest floor, for all the world like two gibbons brachiating in search of fruit.
‘Where is the Lord?’ says the girl.
‘The Lord can find us if the Lord wants. Didn’t they teach you that at the temple?’
‘No, sir. Did you learn it at snooty posh dickhead academy?’
‘You snore like a pig.’
‘You smell like one.’
The boy doesn’t respond. Instead, he surges ahead of the girl, accelerating, and it’s a challenge she cannot ignore. She climbs higher and scampers along the great damp boughs, three-four-five feet across. Frogs squatting in the hollows of bromeliads watch her with plump disinterest. She hears the boy coming up below her but, as always, he’s clumsy and today in his irritation he’s clumsier still. She swings down along a vine and lands barefoot and silent at the edge of a pool.
Swimming a few feet away in the placid waters is the golden weasel.
‘Why are you fighting?’ He says.
The girl lowers her head until her forehead touches the soil.
‘We weren’t fighting, Lord,’ she says. ‘We must move. There are Redcaps nearby.’
The weasel looks up into the treetops, and then at the sky.
‘They won’t come this way.’
‘Still. We should move. Find shelter until dark.’
The weasel emerges and shakes itself dry. Then He climbs up the girl’s arm and curls around her neck. She feels Him warm and damp against her skin, His little heart hammering, and resists the urge to stroke Him. A few moments later, the boy crashes out of the forest and skids to a halt.
‘Lord,’ he says. ‘That’s not an appropriate—’
‘Let’s go,’ says the weasel.
The girl takes off at a jog and the boy falls in behind her. She doesn’t need to look at him to know he’s jealous. She can tell from the possibilities proliferating in the air. In some they die together and in some they die apart and in some one of them kills the other. Still, in all, their deaths are bound, like two branches from the same trunk. She’s satisfied with that.
The old man gets off a bus in a remote and treeless valley. To his left, a raw stone ridge soars skyward. To his right, it descends in a tumbling slope of dung-colored scree down to where a clutch of goats is fording a foaming river. One of them pauses and watches him, head cocked, ears twitching, stupidly perplexed by his existence. There’s a tree stump nearby and he sits and wipes the chilly sweat from his brow. Then he takes a bottle of firewater and swigs from this once and licks his lips and swigs again. Then he sets off, the warmth of the stuff blooming in his chest.
The road runs like a gray ribbon along the valley’s lip to a pass about ten kilometers away. Between him and there is a small collection of colorless stone huts strewn haphazardly on the roadside. The sun glares but the thin mountain air offers no warmth. He reaches the village by mid-afternoon and there’s no one in sight but for a skinny puppy, gray-brown and big-eyed, that watches him from the shadows with its stubby snout between its paws. The old man finds the village well and drinks and the water is mist-cool and sweet. The puppy follows and he gives it some water too. Then he sits on the dusty soil, stroking the creature, and staring at the mountains looming about him like hunchbacked old gods wearing tattered cloaks of snow.
After a while, a boy child appears at the door of one of the huts. He wears torn shorts and nothing else. He stares at the old man for a while, half hidden behind the doorjamb, picking his nose.
‘Who’re you?’ he says eventually.
‘I’m a traveler,’ says the old man. ‘I’m going over the mountains.’
‘To meet an old friend.’
‘To right an ancient wrong.’
‘It means very old.’
‘You’re very old.’
‘What’s your name?’
The boy tilts his head and eyes him suspiciously.
‘Utpic,’ he says. ‘That’s my puppy.’
The old man picks the creature up and it squirms in his hand. The boy comes over and takes it and holds it like a baby.
‘It’ll be night soon,’ he says. ‘The daran will eat you.’
‘The daran have no quarrel with me. Where are your parents?’
The boy leads him to them. Two skinny folk with leathery skin stalking miserably through a dusty collection of tiered fields fanning downslope from the huts. The old man sees instantly from the crumbling stalks and mass of shit-colored wilt that the crops have all failed. The couple yelp the instant they see them and come bounding up. The woman snatches the boy away and hisses, ‘Who are you? Go away!’
‘I’m a traveler,’ says the old man. ‘It’s getting late. I’d like to stay here for the evening.’
The woman has light brown eyes. When she speaks, her whole face contorts, as if the act of making noises repulses her.
‘You can’t. There’s nothing here.’
‘Those other huts look empty.’
‘Everyone’s dead in those. You want to stay in a house of the dead?’
‘Are their bodies still there?’
‘Then I have no objection.’
‘Well, we’ve nothing to spare you,’ says the man, pointing at the fields. ‘See? Everything’s dead.’
‘We could eat him,’ says the child.
The woman pinches him and the child flees, wailing.
The old man walks in amongst the dead crops. The soil’s soft and moist beneath his feet. He scoops some up and sniffs. There’s nothing wrong with it. Then he inspects the leaves and the dead stalks and finds the culprit—little mosaiced black hexagons on the skin of the plants.
‘You have plenty,’ says the old man.
‘What’re you talking about?’ says the man.
The old man crouches and buries his left hand in the soil. He closes his eyes. For a short while he sees through the earth and the rock, from the breathless peaks to the churning black guts of the orogeny beneath. He feels eyeless salamanders crawling through him and the condors wheeling overhead in search of blood. He feels the cool rock, and below that the warm, pressed against his skin, and each other, like lovers.
He hears the man and the woman gasp and opens his eyes.
The crops are restored. Where there was death before, there’s now a teeming abundance of green growing so lush that it sprawls over the sides of the terraces and onto the stairs. Twin shackles of electric blue flowers bloom silently at his feet. The wind fills with the scent of growth.
The old man looks at the couple.
‘You have plenty,’ he says.
The weasel insists they keep going, but the girl and the boy can’t ignore the stink of rot and blood that begins to follow them. After a day or so, He sighs and allows them to go off in search of whoever’s stalking them. After a while, it hears a solitary shot almost lost amidst the shuffle and stutter of the daytime forest. When the children return an hour or so later, pale-faced and retching, it bares its canines in what they’ve come to learn is a smile.
‘Well?’ He says.
‘Lord. They’re disgusting.’ says the boy. ‘I’ve never seen them up close before.’
‘Or smell them,’ says the girl, retching again.
‘What were they doing?’ asks the weasel.
‘Eating. And…’ The boy blushes. ‘Why’re they like that?’
The weasel shrugs.
‘They are as they are.’
‘I’d rather die than live like that,’ says the girl.
‘Who’re you to decide what lives and dies?’ says the weasel.
They proceed in silence for the rest of the day. The boy because he’s haunted by what he saw. The girl because she’s wondering who gets to decide what lives and dies, if not those willing to make such decisions.
The next day, they reach the plains where the forest begins to thin into copses of scrawny black-barked trees clustered against sandpapery winds. Peering at the scene from the forest’s edge, the boy notices two black clots of ash where people have recently camped, and calls the girl over.
‘We have to take a detour,’ he says.
He points to the fires.
‘It could be Eikuans.’
‘They’re just as bad.’
‘The priests said—’
‘The priests couldn’t stop your lot from burning the temple to the ground, could they?’
The girl growls.
‘I’m no redhat.’
‘Your people are.’
‘Not all of them.’
‘Fine. Not all your people are Redcaps, but all Redcaps are your people.’
‘That’s not true either. But even if it was, you couldn’t blame them. Your lot spent three hundred years taking everything we had. You shouldn’t be surprised we’re taking it all back now.’
She stalks off and the boy watches her go. He wants to say something but can’t think of anything because he knows she’s right and the shame that comes with this is hot enough to pass for anger. He doesn’t rejoin her until after the sun’s set and both he and the air have cooled and finds she’s caught a couple of rabbits. He watches her slit one up along its belly and peel its skin back, rosy and glistening, from the flesh. He helps. Later she offers him a skewer of meat with a brief smile and the boy relaxes for the first time since sundown.
The weasel appears between them with a pop.
‘Lord,’ says the girl.
‘Why should we spare the daran? They’re creatures of blood and rot, aren’t they?’
‘We are all made of each other’s blood,’ says the weasel. ‘The world was born in blood and rot.’
‘Was it, Lord?’
‘There was a world before this, and in it there were only gods and flowers and the All-Kingdom ruled by the First King. But the King’s brother, the Blue Flower, was jealous, because the King once slept with the Blue Flower’s sister-wife, She Who is Clothed in Night. He killed the First King, cut his body into seven pieces, and fed them to seven beasts. The First King’s sister-wife, the She Who Eats Her Own, went off in search of his body. She found each of the beasts and lay with them and gave birth to each piece of the First King, anew. When she had all of her brother-husband-son’s pieces, she sewed them back together and coupled with it. From that coupling, she produced a child. That child was Earth. Then she produced another child, and that child was Sky. And lastly, she produced a third child, and that child was Water. And together, Earth, Sky, and Water vanquished the Blue Flower, and carved him into a million, million pieces. And that is why wherever you go, you will find blue flowers.’
The girl and the boy sit in silence, thinking of all the blood and suffering in the story. Why, the girl wonders, are the old stories always so full of grief? There must have been happy times. There must have been times when the First King and his brother shared a joke together, or played a game, or agreed on something. Why were the gods always so angry? Why did they never laugh?
Maybe they did. Maybe people only remembered the blood and incest. Maybe those stories had less to do with the gods and more to do with what we choose to remember about them.
The weasel burrows in between them. Its fur is soft and its heartbeat loud and both the boy and the girl feel affection for the strange and wondrous creature swell in their chests like ripening fruit. How’s it possible, they wonder, to feel hallowed by your own love for something? How can something, just by existing and needing you, turn you into something you never thought you could be—for example, a pair of renegades, alone and unafraid, evading an army that has toppled ancient empires here in the far reaches of the world?
They fall asleep and have the same dream. Birds with unmoving wings glide overhead. At the horizon, they drop something from their bellies and it erupts into a cascading orange blaze. When they wake the next morning, they smell distant burning. They sneak to the edge of the forest and see a great wall of smoke in the distance.
The weasel sidles up next to them.
‘It’s not just daran who’re creatures of blood and rot,’ He says.
The old woman is perched on a wall on a hillside overlooking a road, fingering a water-smoothed stone that fits in the palm of her ancient hand. Across the way is a clutch of villas and hotels and eateries, all brightly lit and teeming with people speaking languages she’s never heard. They’re so pretty, she thinks, those strange tongues. So beautiful the way these visitors’ foreign mouths warble and curve and string together noises that mean nothing to her, but convey universes nevertheless.
It’s getting cold and night’s heavy breath sinks from the peaks but still she waits until a truck comes clattering up the hill. A ramshackle brown contraption spewing gray-black smoke and whining as it grinds along the new road built for tourists but used also to haul coal and timber and bolts of cloth down from the villages up in the naked valleys. She’s been expecting it. She waits for it to get close, takes aim, and flings a stone at the windscreen. It hits with a clink and a small filigree of silvery cracks erupts around it.
The truck judders to a halt and a young man, mustached and tousle-haired, leaps out of the cabin. He catches sight of her.
‘Did you do this?’ he yells.
The old woman smiles and nods.
‘What the hell, grandma?!’ he bellows. ‘What the fuck for?’
There are people watching from the nearby restaurants now. Nut brown foreign faces surprised out of their obscure conversations by the grinding of breaks and the shouting. The old woman doesn’t pay them any attention. She gets up and dusts her rear and retreats up the hillside. The soil crumbles beneath her little feet like coffee grounds. Already she can hear the screech of the two cars coming down the hill and see the spears of their headlights skewing wildly in the night. One of them rounds the corner and skids all the way to the other side of the road. For an instant, a sliver of its back tire hangs over the precipice, spinning without grip. Then the rubber catches and the engine roars and the vehicle lurches across the road like some ambushing predator leaping at its dinner. A second after this comes the other car. A second after that, they’re gone.
The truck driver looks at the old woman, mouth open.
‘How did you…?’
The old woman smiles, and disappears up into the undergrowth.
For a long time, she resented the passage of time. How as the years went by, the age of her body and the age of the thing inside it, the thing that is her, seemed to do nothing but diverge. But she found also that resentment is exhausting, and eventually she let it dry out and wither too. Like her skin. Like her hair. Like her dreams of living a life for herself, and no one else.
There’s an old temple near the mountaintop and she climbs up to it with the steady hardiness of all the old folk around these parts. Inside she finds one of the towers overlooking the valley and ascends stairs mottled brown-black with damp. There are ghosts there. Some of them are angry, but not with her. She knew many of them when they were alive and they’ve no quarrel with her. Some of them even pity her. Isn’t that a fine thing, she thinks. Even the dead feel sorry for you.
At the top there’s an empty platform, and above that, the icy blaze of the stars. She lays out her bedspread and unpacks her belongings and settles down for the evening. Being old, she thinks, is not unlike climbing a tower. A long and lonely journey, perhaps. But the reward is a view unlike any other.
The weasel tells them to approach the blaze and they do so, skulking and full of dread. What they find is a crackling, sullen expanse of devastation more absolute than any either the boy or the girl have ever seen. The grass is scorched black and the trees are reduced to blasted stumps and what beasts remain are either the tiniest of bugs or the incinerated dead, their eye sockets empty and their gumless mouths grimacing at the gray vault of the sky. The weasel stares at it all, limpid eyes flickering across the ruin. He wanders out and stops and turns to look at them. In the middle of the smoking hellscape, aghast and scowling, He’s like some future demon presiding over the carbonized corpse of human civilization.
‘A victory consists not only in triumph,’ He says, ‘but in how that triumph was achieved. All your people’s victories are holocausts.’
He burrows into the ground and disappears.
A few moments pass. Then the earth shakes and above them the clouds part like the sky’s giving birth, then and there, to a brand new sun. Things rise from the soil. The boy and the girl fall on their backs as a giant tree soars and expands and its canopy spreads in a slow green explosion overhead. Another springs up beside it, and then another, and another. In amongst those, rose bushes and gooseberries and expanses of glowing blue flowers already in full bloom.
The boy wraps his arms around the girl without thinking and together they watch the sudden and miraculous greening. When it slows enough for them to dare to breathe, they notice the weasel standing by one of the trees, shaking itself dry of some moisture that glitters red and then green and then finally black before it hits the ground.
‘Be of the earth,’ He says, ‘It—’
The weasel flies off, as if snatched by some invisible raptor, trailing an arc of silvery blood. An instant later, a young man stalks out of the undergrowth, rifle held high, grinning.
‘I wasn’t even sure it was you!’ he says, cheerful. ‘Then I saw all this and—’
They rush him in unison. He takes aim but the boy and girl feint in different directions. He shoots the girl through the shoulder, at close enough range that the bullet bores a searing hole straight through her flesh and out the other side. An instant later, the boy barrels him over and straddles him and pommels his face until the bones of his face crack in a series of audible crunches.
‘Traitor,’ hisses the boy. ‘What’ve you done? What the hell have you done?’
He keeps punching. The girl rushes over to look for the weasel. She can hear the shooter moaning and sobbing behind her, but she doesn’t care. Some victories are supposed to be holocausts.
The old man leaves as soon as the pickles are ready to eat. He can’t stand goodbyes, so he waits till Utpic and his parents fall asleep, piled together like puppies against the cold, and he sets off toward the limp fringes of dawn. He knows they’ll be devastated. He’s heard them chattering all winter long, talking about the crops they’ll harvest the next year—not just one crop, yanked from the stingy ground as in past years, but two, or even three. Harvests like the one the old man made for them the first night he was there. Harvests rich enough for them all to grow fat. Enough maybe for them to make another child. They won’t give up the dream so easily, the old man knows, and so he’s not surprised when on his second day uphill he sees the man coming up behind him, perhaps six miles distant, bent over against the scree.
The old man sighs and keeps on.
Now and then he comes across the vestiges of the people who have braved these mountains before him. Small lopsided cairns, piled like the ossified shit of some giant stone mountain goat, fringed with early spring blossoms. The drystone walls of hermits’ retreats barricading the entrances to caves. Abandoned checkpoints, each with a single bamboo stick painted yellow-and-black for a gate and a rough cinderblock for counterweight, littered with bullet casings. These last things the old man stops to inspect. He holds the biggest of the little cylinders up to the light, dull bronze and freckled with greenish-blue scales, and recalls the sound of the heavy machine guns that produced them. He pulls down the bamboo gates and lets them up again. He scans the valleys, high and dry and far from the menace and moisture of the lowlands, for any sign of the people who once manned these things. But there’s nothing up there with him but the shy beasts of the highlands, and memories.
On the seventh day, the old man crosses a ravine by a rope bridge and when he gets to the rise on the other side, he sees that the man from the farm is still following him. He has a gun.
That evening, as the sun sets, the old man grows a patch of lush grass on the mountainside and settles down behind a boulder downwind. Night leaches the landscape of color and with it comes a small family of mountain goats, silent and fretful, barely visible. Three of them sniff the growth and then begin munching. One of them is old and kink-backed and this is the one the old man chooses. Two roots erupt up like woody tentacles and wrap around its neck. It kicks but the roots tighten, and it dies.
The other two scatter.
The old man slits the creature’s belly and its innards ooze out, squelching and pungent. He hooks them with a stick and pulls and spreads them about the ground. He slits its jugular too and its blood leaks lazily, a steaming oilslick in the purplish light of the two moons. Lure set, he retreats up the slope, and waits.
The daran arrive soon enough.
They come over the hill in the direction the goats fled, shambling and unsteady on the stony ground. It doesn’t take them long to find the corpse. These are a clutch of five, hairier than lowland daran, but still the same in every way that matters. They are still humans, except that their heads are on backwards and they have tusks as long as a boar’s and their tongues hang, lolling and dripping, down to the middle of their backs. Or their fronts, as the case may be. They lie flat on their front-back to get their mouths close to the flesh. The young attack the dead goat’s eyes, and snarl, and squabble. The adults are quieter.
The man from the farm approaches down the path. He sees the five figures silhouetted against the night. He smells the gore and hears the wet slurp of their chewing. He stares for a few moments, and screams. Then he runs off back the way he came.
The old man waits a while. Then, when the daran resume their feasting, he emerges from his hiding place, chuckling. The demons stare at him and one of the pups hisses, but he raises his hand and points at the meat.
‘Don’t fret,’ he says. ‘Enjoy your meal.’
He sets off down the path. One of them takes its chances and ambles after him. But even at his age, the old man can easily outpace a human walking backwards. It gives up its chase far quicker than the farmer did.
The traitor’s gun was just an old musket from colonial times. The bullet burned a black-blue hole straight through the girl’s shoulder, painful but cauterized and bloodless. The boy chews some herbs he finds in her pack and plugs both ends of the wound and stops worrying about her.
The weasel, though, is far worse off. The bullet has blown one of its little forearms off and though that wound is also singed clean, He still lies whimpering and shuddering in agony. The boy and the girl treat the injury and chant the prayers and songs that will soothe him. After a while, the creature drifts into a fitful sleep. By then, the growth all about them is already falling into rot and death. Soon the stench is unbearable and they lay the weasel on a small stretcher, ready to move. To see Him so limp and broken makes the girl cry and when she does, the boy does too.
They turn to the traitor.
The bark on the tree he’s tied to is sloughing off in damp strips like skin off a corpse. His face is so swollen he can barely speak and one of his eyes is puffed closed and as purple as an aubergine. When he speaks, his words come out mangled and lisping.
‘You idiots,’ he mumbles. ‘You don’t see what’s happening.’
The girl levels her rifle at him.
‘I see that you shot me,’ she says.
‘You didn’t give me a choice. You were going to kill me.’
She spits on him. The gob slides down his face like slugslime. ‘I might yet.’
They head out of the rapidly dying forest. Where yesterday there was a scorched wasteland and that morning there had been a glittering forest, now there’s just organic tissue in myriad forms, disaggregating and blackening with the speed of a sunset. As they go, the boy turns to the traitor and says, ‘Are you proud of what you’ve done?’
‘Are you?’ says the traitor. ‘Of running away?’
‘From your lot. From you and all the other fanatics.’
‘Fanatics?’ The traitor chuckles. Even that’s mangled. ‘We’re not the fanatics, brother.’
The girl remembers vaguely that the boy has spoken of this one before. This tall and broad-chested boy with short-cropped hair and all the swagger of his caste. She can tell that in another world, the world before all this, he’d have been handsome and likeable. She can also tell that he knows that himself. When the boy’d spoken about him, it was with reverence and affection and she realizes now why he can’t bring himself to simply shoot him and be done with it.
‘We’re not the ones defiling temples,’ hisses the boy. ‘We’re not the ones killing the gods.’
‘One man’s god is another man’s slavemaster.’
‘What’ve you done in the temple? You’ve melted the gold down, haven’t you? You’ve torn up the manuscripts and pried out the jewels?’ The boy blinks, face red, eyes wet. ‘Our ancestor’s voices and souls. You’ve destroyed them because you and yours are too lazy to discriminate between oppression and tradition.’
‘They have to go. Your books are chains. Your idols are shackles. Your gods—’
‘Your gods? He was your god too, not so long ago.’
‘I always knew what he was.’
‘And what’s that?’
‘A snarl in the aether. A knot of energy manifested as an animal. Nothing else.’ The traitor fishes around in his mouth with his tongue and spits out one of his teeth. ‘You may as well worship the sunrise, or a giant steaming turd.’
They continue on into the night. They intend to stop sooner but the traitor begins to flag and they keep on just because it makes him suffer. The temperature drops, but they’ve nothing to strike a fire with and they have to huddle together for warmth. Before they do, though, they bind the traitor’s hands and feet together.
‘I’ll freeze,’ he says.
‘You won’t,’ says the girl.
‘What if I need to take shit?’
The girl shrugs. ‘Shit yourself.’
The next morning, the boy and the girl check on the weasel.
‘What do we do?’ asks the boy. ‘With the traitor?’
‘He has to die,’ says the weasel.
But the weasel’s already drifting back to delirium. After a while, the boy lifts his rifle and wanders over to the traitor and unties his ropes.
‘What’re you doing?’ says the girl. ‘We have to kill him.’
‘Trust me,’ he whispers. ‘Please.’
The traitor staggers to his feet. The boy releases the safety on his rifle and prods his chest.
‘Go,’ he says. ‘Run.’
‘You’re letting me go?’
‘Go, before I change my mind.’
The traitor looks at the boy, and then at the girl, and then back at the boy. Then he grins.
‘You always had a thing for lowlanders.’
‘I said go.’
‘You really don’t see what’s happening, do you? Why they chose a girl and a boy?’ The traitor grins. ‘Why they chose a boy and a girl who’re in love?’
‘We’re not in love,’ snaps the girl.
‘Oh, please. That thing.’ He points at the weasel. ‘At first, I wondered why they’d choose the two of you. You two who’re always bickering. But I guess they knew better than me. Look at the two of you. You’re so in love you stink of each other. How’d you think you’d’ve lasted at the temple? You’d’ve screwed sooner or later, and that would have been that.’
The boy points the rifle at the traitor’s head.
The traitor doesn’t move. The boy lowers his rifle.
‘I might not shoot you,’ says the boy. ‘But she will.’
The girl raises her rifle. The traitor’s smile melts and he takes off across the dust. They watch his figure receding, muscled and relaxed, ten, twenty feet. He turns, obnoxious in the certainty he’s won, and waves. Then he keeps going.
‘I hope you know what you’re doing,’ says the girl.
The boy lifts his rifle and takes aim and fires. The traitor’s head explodes. The gunshot hangs in the air for a few moments and the sour curl of smoke from his barrel an instant longer than that. The boy lowers his gun again and looks at the girl.
‘Why did you do that?’ she says.
‘He had to die.’
‘So why didn’t you just shoot him here?’
‘He was my friend.’ The boy wipes a tear. ‘I didn’t want him to die in fear.’
He goes back to the weasel. The girl realizes the traitor was right.
A vehicle rattles past the old man in the bleaching mid-afternoon light. It’s a clattering old pickup, once orange but now the color of clay, as dusty as a hunk of ore pulled fresh from the earth. It halts about twenty meters ahead of him and he sees that there are five young people in it. They’re all unshaven and swigging from glass bottles and smoking and the girls have tiaras of flowers on their heads.
‘Grandpa!’ says one of the girls. ‘Where’re you going?’
‘There’s nothing out here, man.’ The driver squints at him. ‘It’s dangerous.’
The old man points down the hill.
‘Through to Ildil, and thence to the Dead Valley.’
‘Thence?’ says the girl, grinning.
‘The Dead Valley?’ says one of the boys.
The old man nods.
The driver peers at him. He looks wild but his teeth are nice and his nails clean and he speaks with perfect grammar.
‘We’ll take you thence,’ he says.
‘Thank you,’ says the old man. ‘And I’ll have a toke of that too, if you’ll let me.’
They make room for him and he gets in. One of the girls hands him her joint and he inhales and lets the tangy smoke leak out his nostrils in thick white curls. He’s only seen people like this on television. So spoiled and happy and open-minded. Comfortable enough in their own lives that they can truly concern themselves with the lives of others. They’re traveling to the uplands, ‘now that everyone’s stopped killing each other.’ Still, they’re not fools. They’re just young, and youth has a wisdom all its own. They know about the daran, even if one of the girls and two of the boys are dying to see one. They have a shotgun and two pistols and plenty of water and jerky in plastic packs stowed under their seats. The pickup they’re driving is one of the tough wartime models as temperamental and tough as a donkey.
‘Every shed from here to Eikua’s got parts for one of these,’ says one of the girls.
He sits by the window and watches the shadows sharpen and the light thicken with meaning with every toke that he takes. Eventually, he just rests his head against the window. The girls fall asleep and one drools on his shoulder, but he doesn’t mind. When she wakes, she wipes her mouth and looks at him.
‘Why’re you going to the Dead Valley?’ she says.
‘To see an old friend.’
‘No one lives out there anymore. Just hordes of Kuvatalese, coming to see the temple.’
‘That’s not true,’ says the old man. ‘There’s life everywhere. Every breath you take you fill your lungs with living things.’
The girl smiles. ‘That’s deep, grandpa. But seriously. Why the Dead Valley?’
He takes a deep breath, and for a second, he considers lying. But then he realizes this may be the last time he can tell his story. And so he tells them, everything. From the moment he was drawn aside at the temple by his master and asked if he truly did have a soft spot for the lowland oblate girl he constantly squabbled with. Their escape and their pursuit and blowing his best friend’s head off. The final, choking revelation of what he must do, and what it will cost him. An ancient aching pain flares with the retelling and when he’s finished it, he has to sit, silent, and let it run its cruel and lugubrious course.
The kids light up another joint. It’s early evening now, the sky a darkening azure, the night air clear and clean. They pull over and sit on and around the car smoking and eating jerky. The old man feels almost young again.
One of the boys turns to him.
‘Don’t you feel like they stole your life?’
The old man is silent for a while. Eventually, he just says, ‘No.’
They wait for more and eventually the old man caves.
‘Not everyone has the opportunity to do great things in their life,’ he says. ‘Great generals are useless in peacetime. Great lovers are useless in times of war. I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to do something great.’ He breathes deep. ‘Machines wear out their cogs. I’ve always known I was part of something greater. I’ve always known it would wear me out, too.’
More silence. One of the girls stares at him, wide-eyed.
‘Damn, grandpa,’ she says. ‘That’s seriously deep.’
The weasel hovers between death and delirium for four days. The boy and the girl carry it along a river across the plains and see sights they’ve never seen before. Vast herds of sayapo, stilt-legged and saber-horned, striding over the goldening grass in majestic migration. Giant rays in the silty waters, swimming as if flying, unblinking eyes watching them with something eerily akin to recognition. Sky-darkening clouds of insects that keep them up at night with the endless whispering passage of a billion billion wings.
At one point, they hear gunfire in the distance and drop to the ground and watch a massacre unfolding in silhouette. A host of daran are shambling off to the west, the adults dragging the small ones. Following them is a jeep with three people in it and one of them is manning a machine gun mounted on its back. They fire and the daran fall, flailing and screaming. The humans dismount and wander amongst the injured and whimpering survivors and finish them off with bullets to the skull. The girl stares at the shapeless black lumps they leave behind, piled against a pale pink wisp of sunset. The very thought that this is what she spoke about doing, not so long ago, is like vinegar in her veins.
They skirt a village they see burning in the distance. There are checkpoints and burning tires by the road and sometimes bodies too. At one crossroads, there are two women hung by their necks, their revolutionary gear hanging in tatters around them, blood dripping off their feet and pooling on the clean new tarmac beneath them. None of it—the burning buildings and the shattered vehicles and the random fingers and shreds of flesh they find half-buried in the dust—seems real. It feels as if the weasel’s nightmares are spilling over into reality. Or else, it’s not the weasel that’s hovering between death and delirium. It’s the entire world.
By the time they reach the city they’re aiming for, the weasel has recovered enough to speak. They squat amidst a few abandoned mud huts in the outskirts. Hollowed-out things looking lonesome amidst an expanse of paddyfields where the aborted second harvest is turning to rot. The girl and the boy dare to light a small fire and settle back, watching the weasel’s little chest rise and fall, watching Him clutch at things in the air that aren’t there. They share swigs of firewater from a bottle they swiped at a checkpoint the day before. With the heat of the stuff in their faces, they look at each other and away and then at each other again. Then they laugh.
‘What’ll you do after we get him there?’ says the girl.
‘Don’t know. What’ll you do?’
‘There’s nothing to go back to.’ She leans her naked foot over until it is touching his. ‘I’ve nowhere to go.’
‘What about your village?’
‘It’s a long way back. I don’t even know if they’ll take me. I’m one of the Olds.’
‘Yeah.’ The boy sighs. ‘Do you think everyone at the temple’s dead?’
‘Yes,’ says the girl. ‘Yes, I do.’
They both fall silent. After a while, the girl looks and sees the boy crying. She cradles his head in her arms and they cry together, clinging to each other in the shadow of a skinny tree. They weep for the lush world they left behind and the memories, already fading, of the temple, and their friends, and their life before. Memories clamoring as if willing the boy and the girl to produce more of the same, and then turning sour when they realize that they can’t.
When they’re finished crying, they look at each other and, this time, they don’t look away. They draw close instead until they fill each other’s fields of vision like great asteroids falling to earth. Their heartbeats are like the roar of the atmosphere burning beneath it. Their lips part.
Then, the weasel speaks.
‘You have to eat me,’ he says.
To be old, the old man thinks, is to enjoy the comfort of expecting less of people, and expecting less of yourself. This is something he usually enjoys. But the closer he gets to the valley, the more he rues his ragged old face, and his sinewy old feet with their nails the color of sulfur, and his flaccid old cock which stirs to limp life sometimes, and when it does, climaxes with the dull seep of a mudflat.
When he finally gets to the valley, he can’t believe it’s the same place he left. The trees lying bleached and sprawled over each other like the nameless victims of a massacre. The tourists milling about in rainbow-lit bars in the village down the hill, the village which is now undeniably a town. Though the buildings are still ramshackle and the people as skinny as ever, there’s an energy over the place he doesn’t expect. In the town square, with its clock tower donated by the Eikuans, there’s some sort of political rally happening. Young women in green headbands and hats are handing out fliers. One of them comes up to him waving a piece of paper and smelling sweetly of roses.
The old man bursts into tears.
‘You alright, grandpa?’ she says, eyes wide.
‘Yes,’ says the old man. He wipes his eyes and smiles. ‘I just remember a time when you’d’ve got shot just for doing that.’
He makes it up to the temple on foot, past the ruins of the dormitory and the academy. Both look older than they should, shattered hulks pocked with little craters, white as if ossified. He keeps on past a gaggle of foreigners who skitter in a herd here and there taking photos. Eventually he loses them and goes round the altar and there, bright blue and otherworldly, is a little flower. He stoops to pick it up.
‘I wasn’t sure you’d come,’ says the old woman.
She’s standing with her back to the entrance, her features lost in her own shadow. He walks up to her without a word and feels the crags and curves of her face with his fingers. She takes his hand and holds it to her cheek. For a long moment, they’re both lost in their memories of each other, memories so intense they burn through time and reduce all the years between them to cinders.
‘I’ve made us some dinner,’ she says.
‘Of course you have.’
‘Roast rat and squirrel.’
‘You still hunt?’
The old woman guffaws.
‘With this belly, and these swinging boobs? I couldn’t catch a monkey with a fistful of nuts.’
‘They don’t droop that much.’
‘Save your charms for later, highlander.’
They puff their way up the stairs. The old woman has set herself up at the top of the tower with a tarpaulin and a small grill and some other things, but what strikes the old man first and hardest is the expanse of the dead valley, ash-gray and dolorous in the dying light.
‘Why now?’ he says.
‘The timelines were right.’ The woman lights a fire and presses some salted meat and a few peppers on a grill over them. ‘For the first time, people are more likely to let the valley be than try to burn it.’
‘There’re elections happening. Can you believe?’
‘The world’s changed.’
‘What did you do? After?’
‘After?’ A pause. A shrug. ‘I came back here.’
‘Was it…was it terrible?’
She nods. ‘It was terrible.’
‘Did you…have a family?’
‘Yes. Two boys. You?’
‘Yes. Once. It didn’t work out.’
‘In the wars?’
She doesn’t push him. She just flips the meat over and over until it’s cooked through and then hands it to him, skewered on a little bamboo. After that, there’s just a long and gentle silence. Despite all the things they’ve imagined saying, now that they’re back together, they realize none of it need be said. So they eat, and they watch the fire, and watch each other. The world is changed, and the people in it too, in ways they can’t quite understand. But they understand what’s happening here and now. It’s as much as they can ask for.
They see a line of tanks growling down the road. In the distance, columns of smoke rise black and oily from the city. They retreat with the groaning and feverish weasel into the depths of a fortress of breadfruit trees across the paddyfields. Here, they go through the rituals in a daze. They smear twin streaks of turmeric paste on each other’s foreheads and take turns plucking unripe fruit wherever they can find it. The girl comes back laden with hundreds of little green buds and she places these one by one with unnecessary precision in a circle around the weasel. The boy does the same but with other fruit, some fist-sized and tough skinned, others long and slender and yellow-green. Through all this, they feel as if their bones had abruptly turned to lead, and their tongues also. They don’t speak a word.
Then they prepare the machete.
They pour firewater over the blade and wipe it clean with a white cloth and hold it up to a curtain of light descending through the canopy. The metal glints and trembles as if alive, but they both know this is only because the hands holding it—their hands—are shaking.
They approach the weasel.
‘I can’t protect you anymore,’ He says.
The boy and the girl drop to their knees.
‘Lord,’ says the girl. ‘We’re the ones who failed. We’re the ones—’
‘No,’ says the weasel. ‘Everything went as planned. Without the valley, I’m nothing. Without me, the valley is dead. I can’t survive too far from it. You knew that.’
The last moment of their old lives passes. Their new lives begin with a realization. That all along, it wasn’t they who were protecting the weasel. It was the weasel who was protecting them. It’s like walking across a snowfield only to have a gust of wind reveal that all this time they’ve been walking on ice. Thin and filigreed skin over an abyss beyond measurement or comprehension. In the years that follow, they’ll find the bottom of this and discover that it isn’t as deep as they thought. But at that moment, in the trees, the boy and the girl sit back on their haunches and stare at each other, stunned and silent.
The weasel watches them bare their grief to each other without reserve and knows he’s made the right choice. When the time comes, they’ll seek each other out. They’ll look forward to it. They’re good people. And like all good people, they’ll decide to do what’s right before thinking about what it’ll cost them.
The weasel closes His eyes. He knows He deserves what’s coming next.
‘You were the best of my children,’ He says. ‘Now. Do it.’
The boy and the girl hesitate. Then they seize the machete and situate their fingers and bring it down in a quick and awkward arc onto the weasel’s neck. Blood spurts, viscous and golden, and light also, heavy light that spreads in a swift and glittering miasma. They’ve only made a deep gash and the creature thrashes about in a fit until the boy, sobbing, holds it down while the girl hacks off its head with another blow. Still, it twitches for a long time afterwards. As if life, when it leaves, is a thing that seeps.
Around them, their collection of fruits swell and ripen and then shrivel and turn to rot. The boy and girl slit the weasel from neck to crotch and its insides spill out, gold and silver and slick with ichor like mercury, warm on their hands. They skin and gut his body and where his blood and viscera falls clutches of mushrooms pop up from the soil, and moonflowers, and the whip-thin trunks of young cherry trees. They wash his flesh in a pond and grill it over a fire, and though the flesh is soft and sweet, they gag on every mouthful.
When they’re finished, they crawl over to a tree, more exhausted than they’ve ever been, and lie there in each other’s arms.
‘A farm with an orchard would have been nice,’ says the girl.
‘And some goats.’
‘Somewhere in the foothills, then.’
‘Yes. A little farm. With our own well. East-facing.’
‘We’d need to be near a town, somewhere. With lots of people to buy our produce. Grapes and goat cheese.’
‘I’d like to buy a car.’
‘A car?’ The girl bites her lip. ‘One of those coughing wheeled things?’
‘Yeah. We could go for drives. Up in the mountains. To the valley, and see the temple. We could move things in bulk to the market too.’
The girl smiles.
‘I want to learn to paint.’
‘No, no houses. Paintings. Proper paintings.’
‘You want to be an artist?’
She nods against his chest. ‘Yes.’
‘I’ll be a farmer. That’ll do me.’
‘The bureaucrat’s son, who wants to be a farmer. What would your ancestors say?’
‘A farmer’s daughter who wants to be an artist. What would your ancestors say?’
‘They’d say, good on you for bagging yourself one of those posh boys, even if he is a weirdo.’
They laugh. After a while, the girl sits up.
‘We can’t stay together.’
‘We’ll be safer—’
‘No. The odds of us dying are high. The odds of us both dying are higher if we stay together.’
‘No. I can see it. Can’t you?’
‘No.’ The boy looks at her. ‘What do you see?’
Already she can feel a fragment of the weasel inside her, effervescing through her blood. Already she can see the world disaggregating into possibilities. Futures that will be and futures that may be and futures that won’t be all transposed in ghostly multitudes.
‘We have to part until the moment’s right. Otherwise we will both die and the valley will be lost for a million years.’
‘What if one of us dies?’
‘Then the other must do what they can.’
She gets up.
‘You’re leaving now?’ says the boy, springing to his feet also.
‘If not now, then never.’
‘No! Wait! We can have—’
She kisses the boy on his lips, slow and lingering. Then she breaks into a sprint. He runs after her, shouting something, but she doesn’t stop. She sees it clearly, now—a single lonely path, leading to a tower, in the future, holding an old man’s hand.
She runs towards it, though the path is dark and full of sorrow.
They get up early and go through preparations for the ritual in a daze. Their limbs are lighter than they’ve felt in years and their vision blinding in its clarity. They eat their last breakfast together in the cold dawn, shoulder-to-shoulder. When they’re done, they clean up the campsite and shuttle things down the tower and into the bushes. There’s nothing that either possesses that can’t eventually be subsumed by the earth and so they dig small holes in the dead brush and put it all in. They leave it without looking back.
Down in the sideslanting light, people are beginning to stir in the hostels and in the restaurants. Someone’s sitting on a balcony with their feet up towards the rising sun. Some sandaled and shirtless figure is staring off across the valley to where the shadows of the dead trunks process across the earth in a parade of stark black lines. He doesn’t notice the old man and old woman watching him and he’ll never know that he is the last person they see.
They walk into the dead hall of the temple, and in their minds it blooms back to life. They walk past lines of torches to the sound of cymbals clanked by wide-eyed oblates. At the far end, the priests are waiting by the two giant bronze tubs that were long ago seized and melted and pressed into war medals now gathering dust in the cupboards of old folk who no longer really remember what they fought for.
They get to the altar and climb up behind it. Then they kiss.
They climb onto the altar, still kissing. Their grooved skin is rough like parchment in each others’ hands, and their lips cracked and dry. Their clothes fall to the ground. The old woman eases herself groaning atop the old man and runs her fingers along his chest and the sparse forest of gray hairs there.
‘I didn’t think it would be like this,’ she says. ‘Our first time.’
‘I didn’t think it would be at all.’ The old man smiles. ‘I love you.’
‘I know,’ says the old woman.
‘I just wasn’t sure you heard me the first time I told you. When you ran away.’
‘I heard you. I whispered it back.’
He reaches up and cups her cheek and there’s nothing more beautiful, he thinks, than the entire life he’s holding in his hands.
After that, they lose themselves in each other and the years between them fall away and off their bodies. Their skin tightens and their hair thickens and their eyes sharpen just by looking at each other. By the time they reach the end, they’re once again the boy and the girl. And then, they’re nothing at all.
That morning, the tourists gather in gasping crowds as the sun soars over the valley and a carpet of green shoots peek out of the soil. Mushrooms bloom fleshily on the fraying wood. Frogs leap out of pools that have been still and empty for a generation. Later, others will find out there was more down where they can’t see. Bulbs swelling in the trembling soil. Moths swarming in their sleepy billions up on the peak.
The dry riverbed begins to ooze water. It floods, a silvery artery swelling back to life. On its damp banks a small dome of soil bulges upwards, and breaks. A little golden weasel nudges its way out and lies panting on a carpet of soothing dew. She looks up to the temple, and bows.
‘Thank you,’ She says.
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