In the Valley of Hermits
by Colin Lee Heintze
|part 1 of 4|
“I can feel it, too,” the old man said.
He and the girl were sitting atop Nose-of-the-Mountain, looking down the belly of the mountain, past the endless rows of ancient pines, towards the place in the distant lowlands where the land was a quilt of brown and yellow patches.
“There is a great hate, and a great fear.” Packing a mush of leaves into his cheek, he continued: “But, then again, there usually is.”
“We saw the strangest bird,” the girl began. “I almost can’t believe what I saw. It shone in the light and flew without flapping its wings and made an eerie noise, like a man yawning. At first I thought it must be very close, because it was so large, but my eyes seemed to tell us it was far off, in the distance, though I cannot say by how much.”
The old man nodded his head solemnly.
“It seemed to be made of the metal the Lowlanders use...” the girl ventured hesitantly.
“It is possible. Their kind don’t find their way up here often, but each time they do they have new and remarkable implements. Perhaps they have made one that can fly.”
“The Lowlanders are very clever,” the girl said.
The girl produced a lump of cheese from her frock and sank her teeth into it.
“What are we doing?” the old man demanded coolly.
“It isn’t lunch time yet.”
“I know. I’m hungry now.”
“Put it away. It will put us off our appetites.”
The girl obeyed without complaint. Rising unsteadily to his feet, the old man took her by the hand and led her down the ancient beaten way towards the village.
“Have we ever met a Lowlander, Grandfather?”
The man was not her grandfather but was called such, as she called every man two generations her senior. In a community where jealousy could spread like a common cold, monogamy was one of the first forms of possession The People of the Mountain had dispensed with. For all the girl knew, the old man hobbling alongside her could be her father’s father.
“Hmmm. When I was a boy, a man from the lowlands came up here, calling himself a tax collector. He was an odd man. He became very frustrated and did not even try to lose that feeling but in fact held onto it as if it were precious to him. We made ourselves very forgiving in the hopes that he would, too, though he seemed unaffected by what we were feeling, as though he could not perceive it at all.”
“He asked us many questions, like how much each of us owned and where we lived. We told him we owned nothing and lived on the mountain. He became quite angry and left. That was the last time we saw one of them.”
They felt a swell of emotions rise in them; unruly, undisciplined emotions hardly kept under control and then only by the most determined concentration. The old man and his granddaughter came across some children on the trail, the pair barely able to maintain their stoic dispositions in the face of such raw, untamed energy.
“Children?” the old man asked.
“Yes, Grandfather?” they echoed back.
“Why are we so loose with our emotions? My granddaughter and I felt them a half a mile up the path.”
“We’re only having fun.”
“It is good to have fun, but we must have better control of ourselves. If one of us was to fall and hurt his knee, the rest of us would hurt as well. Then we would go running back to the village and their knees would hurt too. That would be a bad thing.”
A boy stepped forward and crossed his arms haughtily. “I’m the strongest one here, and if one of them hurt his knee, I would laugh, and soon everybody would be laughing even if their knees ached.”
Grandfather gave a derisive, though good-natured chuckle. The boy’s own naivety dawned on him, sending him into a spiral of embarrassment. Sheepishly he stepped back into line with his peers.
“Let me say,” Grandfather said sternly, “that if we ever have some feeling too strong to turn our back on, put it in our hands like this, knead it into a ball, and throw it into the sky. The winds will whip and lash it and tear it apart until it no longer is a concern to us.”
“Yes, Grandfather,” the boys chimed. The raw, powerful essence of their emotions was nothing compared to Grandfather’s calculated stoicism. It had been said that the old man had neither laughed, wept, or cried out in pain for many years. He was one of the most respected among the People of the Mountain, and his presence at many crises had often kept the emotions of less disciplined individuals from spreading among the others.
They walked into the village, the girl helping the old man balance on his knobby feet. They followed the plume of smoke rising over the wigwams and sat down with the others at the fire.
“Lunch time,” the old man said.
He passed a bit of goat meat to the girl. It was charred black and hard at the edges. The goat had to be killed; it had an infected foot and caused many men and women in the village to hobble because of it. The night before, it had been fed poison made from the katka leaf and died painlessly in its sleep. That did not cause the goat — or, by extension, the people of the village — too much suffering. It had been overcooked to ensure the no trace of the poison remained. Though the meat was tough and unpleasant, the people savored it; they had little opportunity to consume any under normal circumstances.
There was one man among The People who was allowed to hunt. His name was Chalc, a fiery lad of eighteen. Before becoming a hunter, he had nearly been exiled to the Valley of Hermits. He had had difficulty as a boy in both sensitivity to other people’s emotions and the suppression of his own.
When it was discovered, however, that he had little fear of the wilderness, little suffering from the hardships contained therein, and little remorse for the slaughter of animals, it was decided that his deficiencies in the ways of The People were something of a mixed blessing.
He was an expert shot with the bow, and could hit small game accurately enough to kill it instantly, thus avoiding needless suffering for The People. For the most part, he lived a quiet and meditative life in the wilderness, only coming back to the encampment when he had shot some game or felt under sufficient control to avoid harming The People with his outbursts of passion.
He appeared unannounced at the fire pit, creating a ripple of surprise amongst the villagers assembled there. The girl saw his broad shoulders and strong, handsome face and turned away coyly, stricken by the odd tickle in her stomach that plagued her in the hunter’s presence.
“We need to talk,” he breathed in the old man’s ear. The old man seemed perturbed by Chalc’s appearance and had a grave expression on his face.
The girl, startled by this curious exchange between hunter and patriarch, opened herself entirely, tearing down years of much-rehearsed defenses until she could share the sensations of the birds flitting in the trees and the rodents burrowing beneath her feet.
Still, her Grandfather remained entirely self-possessed, and all she could decipher of his inner workings was the faintest feeling of dread behind the old man’s impenetrable iron armor. There would be no answer to this riddle from Chalc: though she could read his emotions as easily as an infant’s, he was not very bright, and all the girl could absorb was a mild feeling of confusion tinged with some unnamed and shapeless anxiety.
She pulled herself together. It was a dangerous thing to let herself become an open receiver, if only for a moment. There are evil emotions that lie just under the normal, detectable strata. Had anyone near her harbored such wicked sympathies buried beneath their own layers of protection, she might have easily fallen prey to some dark and horrible notion and spread it to the others, consciously or otherwise.
She turned herself into a wall of stone, careful to transmit nothing, and crept behind randfather and Chalc, who were walking off towards the men’s tent on what seemed like important business.
The pair entered the tent. The girl pressed an ear against the outside, hoping to hear the conversation within. When nothing but unintelligible murmuring met her straining ears, she grew bold. She dropped to her knees and lifted a corner of the coarse material. Wriggling like a worm on its belly, she entered the tent and slithered to the corner farthest from the two men, who seemed to be engaged in a secretive but heated exchange.
The girl crouched in the dimmest corner of the tent, willing herself to be as small and quiet as a mouse nestled in a field. She slid her toes back, out of the spot of light issuing from the chimney hole and into the gloom of her corner. The amber beam illuminated the fine particles drifting throughout the tent, making the hushed conversation between the two men seem illuminated with princely majesty.
“And we are sure?” The old man put to the hunter.
“Of course. I can track a hare through a marsh on a clouded night. The footsteps of men are clumsy things, and not easily mistaken.”
“About five or six, by the looks of it.”
“Where were they headed?”
“That is why I came here so urgently. From what I could tell, they were following the tracks of our people, though doing a poor job of it. I flanked around them and laid down some tracks leading back down the mountain, though I don’t think they’ll fall for the ruse too much longer. I only needed to make enough time to come warn us.”
The old man scratched at the stubble on his chin and dug his heel into the dirt. He looked towards the girl, and anxiously she sank deeper into the darkened folds of the tent. He turned away after mutely gazing through her, towards the uncertainties that the vexing new developments presented.
“This does not bode well. I have felt them from afar, and they are infected with dark thoughts.”
Chalc became energized by this foreboding and began to counsel the old man on strategies for eluding the visitors, happy to be a man shunned no longer.
The old man listened, nodding his head and furrowing his brow, though his thoughts seemed to be somewhere very far off.
The girl tried to follow the conversation but became distracted time and again by Chalc, her thoughts of him burying the meaning of the words whispered between the two men. From her vantage point she looked lovingly over the features of the hunter: his golden-brown hair hanging over his ears, shaggy as a wolf’s mane; his hard, obsidian eyes; and the thin moustache tracing a jagged pattern across his upper lip.
Feeling embarrassed, she pressed herself deeper into the fabric of the tent, wishing not to be discovered admiring him, for she was so small and so plain that she feared her adoration of the great hunter was an act of great vanity. When she was older, she might one day be worthy of his attentions, but for now, while she was still not a woman, she would continue to flee at the sight of his shadow and let the winds scatter her feelings before they could be discovered and made a matter of public record.
Yet, in the shelter of the tent, she could not with all her best imaginings summon a wind to carry off these sympathies, nor did she find herself willing to surrender them. She recalled the feelings of the older women, how their thighs quaked at the thought of their men, and how, approaching their man with that cool, burning sensation between their legs, they would win his attention.
Soon, he too would feel the tickle at the base of his spine and man and woman would retreat to some hidden star-vaulted place until those energies were spent. One day soon, the girl thought, she would be a true woman, and would take Chalc as her first. They would walk back into the village, as others had done, possessed with the nearly unbearable lightness and ease of two lovers returning from their tryst.
The tent was silent. The girl drifted back to the present to see Grandfather staring at her, expressionless, and Chalc blushing. As dull as his feeling was, he had noticed the little flame of admiration smoldering in the corner of the tent, and seemed quite abashed. The girl suppressed a shudder and, overcome by panic, nearly fled, though the stony gaze of Grandfather rooted her legs in place long enough for Chalc to speak.
“And how are we, little sister?” he cooed softly at her. It was a question everyone knew the answer to, phrased as a formality to politely put distance between the subject and speaker.
“Well,” she answered, fulfilling her end of the ritual. The shame and embarrassment fought to overtake her, though her Grandfather’s icy calm overpowered and threw the feelings whimpering meekly into the sky. Aided by Grandfather’s imperturbable detachment, the girl’s composure was restored piece by piece until the evil feeling of shame seemed like a distant memory.
“You may as well go tell us all to break camp,” Grandfather sighed. “We need to be moving now.”
Copyright © 2010 by Colin Lee Heintze