On the steep mountainside I built me a cabin made of earth and wood, nestled in the overhang of rock and safe from the storm and safe from flood or fire. And on the steep mountainside, once the early morning mist melted away and the cool air’s sparkling, I took to wandering along the track where I could spy all the green valley laid out, and all the farmsteads. And I could watch the folk come and go about their days. But I never spied my girl’s mother, not once, not there.
That valley and that mountainside had been my life for most all of my days, since our wagon first went rolling and creaking and jolting into these parts when I was still a boy. It was a long and unfriendly journey my parents took to get us here back then and they were bold enough and desperate enough to go taking it. But they were more than weary by the time they reached this here valley, and looking to settle. And so they settled.
In time they got some flocks together and moved up the mountain where the grazing was best for nine months in the year. After those nine months were marked off the calendar our weather got harsher than most could bear in the high places, where a soul could miss-step in the fog and break most of the bones they had by tumbling down a crevice. Or where the ice could get in your lungs so deep it made your blood cough up. Or where the loneness could make you so simply sad you can’t shake it.
But always, ever since I first got to climbing, it was home for me in the high places and so I stayed most all the time. Then I built me this cabin when I was of age to do it. That mountainside and that valley were filled with luck and they brought me all the good things I ever needed to get by. And those good things got to prospering in time. Yet I never saw any wife of mine, not once in all those years, not even with the far distant view the whole mountainside gave, where it got so close to the view from the sky.
It gnawed me more and more as years went by and that bright and happy daughter kept swaying in my dreams. So at last I sold all the flocks I had and took me on a journey beyond the rim of this valley along the criss-cross of forest paths, seeking where the family of seers abide. It was a dank and airless place to go into. The trees barred the sky and the sunlight fell in broken bits through the thick leaves. It wasn’t night and it wasn’t day. It was a misshapen bit of time in-between of days and nights, with the hours of both mashed together. It made me shiver and struggle for all my breaths. I swear all the deep shadows were whispering I was lost, but I wasn’t lost and I went on.
At the shack where the seers lived and died together there was rotting meat hung up on the branches outside the door. Sat on the ground around an open fire, the seers looked me over, with whispers and giggles. They asked me why I came there and what offerings I brought? I asked what offerings they wanted? They pointed at all the carcasses of crows and rabbits and snakes and toads stuck up on the thorns, so I stepped back into the forest with my axe.
Soon I killed me a squirrel and came back to see the seers. That squirrel was soon sagging on the thorns with all the rest, so then I asked the seers about my daughter and who her mother was? They nodded and giggled together, said no wife was here for me, not in all the valleys I knew, not on all the mountains I ever climbed. Said at the end of another journey that took me far from home was where I’d find that family I was dreaming on. Said that journey was a danger. And so I bought me an enchanted sword from the seers with half the gold I took from the selling of my flocks.
I didn’t like that place that was buried under all those trees and I didn’t like the seers, so then I went on. The journey was like journeys are. It was walking all day and it was sleeping in any place I saw that wasn’t too damp or too easy for wild beasts or thieves to find. I slept in hedges and barns and hay and sometimes a cabin here and there, if any folk there were decent.
That journey lasted and then it stopped. It stopped at a village I don’t know where, I’d gone so far. I was glad to get there, where it looked easier to get better lodging than a hedge and where it was maybe easier to find a wife. But when I got to walking down its paths I thought it was a deserted place. No one walked there but me. No one talked or opened the doors of their houses. But I had no place to go back to and so I still went on, but sadder than before.
Then I understood better. For that path I was walking on wound inwards into the heart of the village, to a meeting place with a small hill for people to gather at. There I saw all the villagers crowded round together, listening, and one of them spoke. The speaker was an elder. Stood still on top of that small hill with all the people below him, his voice was loud as it got carried by the wind. His words were angry, saying “This land lies parched. It’s cracked and its soil turns blue and dusty. When you hold the soil up in your two hands it blows away, like ghosts round a grave.” He was saying “It’s not through choice this land shrivels up. It goes counter to the will of the seasons.”
The elder’s beard jigged about from side to side as he shook his head in time with those angry words of his. He was saying “This soil still chooses to stay rich, like our crops choose to grow. There’s a linking of this choice to that choice. And by that linking it’s given to us now to choose to survive in this place, or not.”
The elder’s head sunk onto his chest and his face disappeared under that sprawling beard. Everything went quiet with waiting and then he lifted up his head, shouting “There are times a plenty in the long years of the land when what’s fertile is lost, when it needs must be led in its proper path. I only point you where that path lies, for I see it as clear as I see you hunger. It’s for you all to go along that path no matter how hard. Our village hangs over the brink this day, like a nest of birds you shake off the branch. And the fall from that brink is final, be warned. Be right in your choosing.” The elder stopped his speaking and turned away to go back down the hill. He left the village and a festival started.
I wondered about following after the elder, whose advice I could ask for and who might be another type of seer. Yet I wanted to watch the festival and so I stayed behind. Music started and the people marched along in time with it, passing right through the village. At the front of the march I saw a fair-haired boy and girl holding hands and wearing fresh garlands in their hair. Neither one of them was yet ten-year old and they sometimes skipped together. That crowd I was in streamed out from the village and I went along with them, without asking anyone what it meant. It seemed a serious festival and no one spoke.
On the highest hill that was overlooking the village I saw the vastest shape rise up. I thought it was a tower first and then I thought it was an ogre or a strange god of this land. Yet no one around me was panicked or even paid it much mind and so I did my best to act the same. Our marching took us further up that hill and I heard other noises mixed with the music, but all shrill and out of tune. I had no guess as to what that noise meant but after we made the brow of the highest hill then I knew.
There stood the tallest object I ever saw that wasn’t a mountain. It was the great image of a giant made out of masses of wood and twisted wicker. And in the giant’s guts I saw trapped animals of all kinds, all wailing and gnawing at that cage they were in, to get free. There was the foulest stink filling up the air from all the leaking muck and mess the animals made, mixed with black smoke from dotted fires burning on the grass.
I saw that fair-haired boy and girl again. Those garlands fell off their heads when they started looking round surprised after they got led up a high ladder to go inside the giant’s guts. They were looking round with spinning heads, all teary, bawling out the names of anyone to help. But their families and neighbours were backing away out of the huge giant’s shadow. Then a dozen or more torches got lit from all the dotted fires and thrown into the wood and wicker and straw that made the giant’s feet.
There was no noise but the crackles of fire and animals’ cries and children’s cries. But no one said any words among the people who watched. And I said no words as I was seeing the waves of smoke get thicker and higher as the sparks jumped. I disremember how long it was before I drew out that enchanted sword. I started slashing me a path through all that packed crowd of them, ignoring if they cursed at me as I went stumbling on between the gaps.
Getting loose of all the hands that grabbed at me and the fists that beat down, I ran on. Then I struck the giant leg of that burning cage with the enchanted sword, to make it topple and crash down into useless beams and planks and splinters. I slashed at that giant as hard as I ever could. And the enchanted sword had no enchantments at all. It buckled at the first blow.
More hands came grabbing at me and more fists to beat me down till the broken sword fell loose from my grip. So it was they dragged me up that same ladder and into the giant’s guts. Inside the hissing bars of it, inside the yellow flames, I see that daughter of mine again, bright and magnificent as a field of corn swaying in the sun.