In the Valley of Hermits
by Colin Lee Heintze
|part 3 of 4|
“No, Captain, I don’t think he understands the word at all. I don’t think he knows what war is.” The voice came from a young man in the group. He wore a sickly pallor on his face and stood supported under the arms by two other Lowlanders. The young man’s leg throbbed with stabs of pain from a festering wound, and his voice was little more than a whisper.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Private.”
“I don’t think they understand anything you’re saying to them, Captain. I think they’re just being polite.”
The Captain rolled his eyes and turned away from the young man. He looked at the old man, assuming him to be some sort of leader, and asked for food.
This the old man understood, and asked a few boys standing at the edge of the crowd to fetch some nuts and shoots for the strangers. The boys, petrified by what they were witnessing, stood rooted to the ground until the old man let down some of his considerable defenses and allowed the boys to feel the stranger’s hunger.
Like a brace of hares darting from their burrows, they ran off to gather some nourishment for the starving troops.
Those of The People too sickened from all the excitement to stay began to disperse and go about their tasks as focused and mechanically as possibly, so as not to surrender to the dozens of new feelings accompanying the outsiders.
The girl broke from the crowd and went straight for Chalc, who was still collapsed on the ground in a whimpering heap. She felt a pang of his despair as she approached him, though her own feeling, some new, fiery, all-consuming thing, by far overpowered the impact of his sadness.
“How could we lead those monsters here?!” she demanded, her tiny body radiating fury.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to do. They’re not human.”
“Never talk to me again! Dog! Pig!”
The girl was shouting. It was the first time she had ever shouted in her life, and the angry words scorched her throat as they flew past. Chalc cringed and cowered at her feet, his own feelings too weak and abstract to affect the girl’s rage, and his own empathy too underdeveloped for her anger to infect him. He crawled on his knees begging forgiveness, the girl unmoved by his display and looking down contemptuously at him.
The old man materialized in front of her, suddenly as if transported by a spirit. She gave a start and paced a few steps backwards, a sense of profound shame dawning on her. The old man’s face was as calm as the waters of a lake, his eyes as focused and alert as a stalking wolf. Wordlessly, he furrowed his brow and bore his eyes into her.
Inside her, she felt invisible hands taking hold of her fury and pulling it apart, crumbling it like dried leaves, and scattering it into the air. The frightening power the rage had granted her drained away, and she fell backwards into the grass, weak as a kitten and devoid of all feeling but a chilling numbness.
Chalc had stopped crying, and sat on the ground with a grin like that of a contented child. The old man walked away as noiselessly as he had come, muttering cryptically to himself: “It has already started.”
Night fell fully and completely, smothering the last vermilion bands of twilight on the ridge tops with absolute darkness. The strangers kept to themselves at the fringes of the camp, though one stayed awake with the odd stick in his hands, eyes peering into the darkness despite his difficulty in holding them open in the early hours.
The stick gave the man a certain confidence that both awed and frightened The People, and it became clear after not much time that the object was one of immense power, some sort of totem or relic that held what amounted to a great religious significance to the Lowlanders. The People of the Mountain longed to touch it, though it seemed a cursed thing, for though it gave its wielder courage he could not bear to be apart from it without feeling immediately helpless and vulnerable.
The People did not sleep well that night. It would not have been so bad if there had been only a single new emotion introduced by the strangers; then The People of the Mountain could at least have focused their efforts on eradicating a single threat to their ancient tranquility. All of the carefully crafted defenses The People had trained their entire lives to shore up were being assaulted on all sides by the hideous feelings the Lowlanders had brought with them.
The person of the mountain thrashing and tossing under their blanket would feel, from one minute to the next, fear, shame, hatred, confusion, wonder, curiosity, and dread. To make matters worse, these states shifted and ensured that no one could pin down if what they were feeling belonged to one of the outsiders, one of their neighbors, or purely themselves.
That they were not driven mad could only have been the work of the powerful elders, absorbing and destroying errant emotions by practice of their discipline. They could not catch them all, however, and they had to let the smaller ones spread among The People in order to combat the larger, more destructive forces. It was a losing battle; the elders could hope only that the outsiders would leave before irreparable harm was done.
The young soldier also robbed The People of any chance for sleep. His leg had rapidly turned gangrenous. Though the rotting, dead flesh did not hurt as much as it had when it was still living and loudly protesting its declining condition, he was in the throes of fever. His own sleep resembled a waking nightmare, the dissonance between his mind and body too great to give him a single clear thought or sensation. The girl, languishing in her own limbo, felt him from afar. She hardened her heart, determined to defy any natural sympathies for the young man’s suffering.
Things improved slightly in the morning. The People, having survived a hellish night with their sanity intact, managed to borrow from some of the good spirits of the Lowlanders, who felt cheery and refreshed after the first good meal and long sleep for many weeks. The outsiders mostly talked among themselves, remaining largely indifferent and aloof to the people, who they regarded as no more than children.
The girl awoke at the same moment as the rest of The People, as they had done since time began.
Grandfather found her sitting alone on a stump, staring dumbly into some silent void. “We need to talk about what happened,” he said.
The girl breathed some barely audible thing. The events of the previous day had weighed especially hard on her. Because of the shame and horror at the words she had spoken, she had deadened her senses, afraid to think, not daring to feel. She had not consented to that hideous wrathfulness invading her, though by some peculiarity of its nature she did not at the time want to feel anything else. Through its demonic guile it had somehow convinced her that to lose sight of her rage was to admit defeat to the thing that had enraged her.
“I hate those men,” she croaked lifelessly.
The old man hesitated before he replied, appalled by the word the child had spoken, a word that had always represented to them a kind of prime evil. It was the most profane word in their language. “We must understand, the hate does not belong to us, but to them.”
“How do I make it go away? I don’t want to feel like this anymore. I would rather die!”
“It is something we have never encountered before. If we cannot dispel it by normal means, then cure the strangers of it. Talk to them. Find out what else they are capable of feeling, and focus on that. They may be horrible men, but they are far from simple. Bring out what is best in them.”
“Yes, I’ll try. If I fail, I will become a hermit. I have no other choice; I cannot be trusted around the others.”
The old man nodded. The girl was wise for her age and far too powerful. He doubted if any good could come from his advice.
She approached the dying soldier as cautiously as she would a wounded animal. While the other Lowlanders drifted about the camp scheming and strategizing in little cabals, the young man had been left by himself, helpless and unguarded like an unwanted child left upon a hillside to die. She padded softly towards him, unsure of how to approach him.
“Don’t be afraid, little girl,” he said weakly. He was wrapped in a hammock slung between two trees. Dangling uselessly over the edge was his leg. A sour smell wafting from the frayed, colorless flesh attracted flies the young man hadn’t the strength to shoo away. “Come closer, I have something for you.”
The girl inched closer, not for fear of his motives, for those were easy enough to decipher, but out of concern for her own reaction to the appalling presence of the outsider.
The lowlander held out a small bauble and gestured for the girl to take it. It was a shiny, fragrant sphere painted in brilliant pink. Like a thieving crow she snatched it from his hands and retreated to a distance beyond his reach.
The young soldier laughed, which sent him into a fit of coughing. “Eat,” he said between labored breaths.
The girl popped the item into her mouth and bit down. It was as hard as a rock, and hurt her teeth. She spit it out and glared at the young man indignantly, her infectious rage creeping to the surface despite the gentle glow emanating from the wounded man. He laughed again as means of a good-natured apology.
He fumbled in his pocket for a long while, his fingers flagrantly disobeying the orders he issued them. When at last he produced another bright stone from his pocket his hands were trembling. He panted for breath from the miniscule effort. “Try again. This time, don’t bite it. Suck on it.”
The girl found it impossible to distrust the man and made her second attempt, half-expecting some new trick was being played on her though emboldened by his unmistakable peacefulness. She rolled the ball in her mouth and found that it was sweet, sweeter in fact than anything she had ever tasted.
She puckered her cheeks and delightedly swished the orb in her mouth until it was soft enough to bite into, which proved to be a moment of tremendous satisfaction. When she had finished she looked up at the wounded man gratefully. She turned away to meditate and reflect on this first encounter when he called at her back.
“Come see me any time! I have more, if you ever want it.”
The girl did not know what to make of everything she had just experienced. The man was wracked with suffering of every kind, and she had felt each one as acutely as pinpricks in her arms. Yet, he was fundamentally generous and peaceful. She could not remember the last time anyone had openly let themselves feel such good will towards her, or for that matter be unafraid to dwell on their regrets, their anxieties, and their fears.
At that moment, the People of the Mountain seemed to her as lifeless as wooden stumps, safe in all things but incapable of the dizzying highs and abysmal lows of the passionate young soldier. Grandfather had been right: these outsiders were far from simple. This complexity made them fascinating, and like the rage that had consumed her the day before, she found the wild, unrestrained feelings burning inside the wounded man intoxicating and impossible to resist exploring.
Several hours were spent spying the man from a distance. When she could take it no longer, she approached him again.
He was dozing in his hammock, tossing lightly in the clutches of a nightmare. The girl placed her hand on his good foot and he awoke with a jolt.
Seeing her gazing innocently at him from below his nest, he unwound his muscles and sank back into the folds of the hammock. “Oh, hello there. Do you want some more candy?”
The girl shook her head.
“Come to keep me company, then? That’s good. I could use it.”
They spent several moments in silence. The man began to sob softly. “They’re cutting off my leg tomorrow. I don’t think it will do any good. I was in medical school before the war, see, and in my opinion I’m a goner. I can’t believe I signed up. When the first bombs fell I marched myself all the way down to the recruitment office, swore my oaths and, and...”
This last thought was drowned by choking sobs. The girl could not help but cry with him, her hand squeezing his toes firmly in sympathy. The young soldier smiled at her. It was a pure and genuine smile that betrayed no lack of affection, though with a hint of desperation for that affection to be returned. The young man was ravenous for it, and the girl returned it to him twice over, though he seemed not to notice unless it was projected by the most superficial displays in her expression and body language.
He beamed at her benevolently, and in a stunned moment of transcendent beauty her heart nearly stopped. What she was feeling was love. It was a desperate kind of love: in the man’s last hours he was becoming attached to everything he saw and had adopted the girl to avoid dying in miserable loneliness.
Subtleties such as these the girl could not fathom. The love she shared with the fading soul was too huge a presence to dissect its minor details. Among The People love was as alien as hate, both being emotions too powerful to be controlled by even the most seasoned elders. The girl had never known what it was to be loved before.
She squeezed his foot reflexively, so hard her knuckles whitened and the man gave a tiny wince of pain. Something was happening, something monumental and unprecedented. Their mutual love unlocked a door within the girl, a cage that she and all of her people had buried deep within them through their lifetimes of repressive self-control.
The door flew open and was blown off its hinges, and suddenly she shared not just the paltry sensations of mood and emotion with the young soldier but his entire self. His life was spread out before her like a tapestry to be decoded and examined, and from it she shared not just his feelings but his memories, his visions of the past and hopes for the future, his deepest secrets known not even to himself.
Copyright © 2010 by Colin Lee Heintze