In the Valley of Hermits
by Colin Lee Heintze
She felt the bitter sorrow for the woman he had left behind, and could as a memory run her fingers against the lowland woman’s soft, amber cheek. She became incensed at how their homeland had cheated them, how it had promised easy victory and high adventure and delivered only misery and pain.
She shook with revulsion at the hatred she felt for the enemy, whom they did not really hate but needed to despise in order to kill in clear conscience.
She wept alongside him for their loneliness, which had followed them all their lives, and would follow them into death under the sun of a foreign sky.
She marveled at the strength and power in her thick arms, the itchy fuzz on her chin, and the somewhat uncomfortable, though fascinating new sensation of their penis dangling ludicrously between her legs.
She did not know how long she stood locked with him in that exchange. She had lived a lifetime, and reflected on it for many after. When she was herself again she found herself lying in the hammock nestled in the crook of the man’s arm as he dozed contentedly, seemingly unaware of the colossal event that had just taken place.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” The voice came from one of the Lowlanders, a thick, stocky man with a mean face and stance like a squatting animal.
The wounded man awoke, noticed the girl clinging to his chest, and gently lifted her out of the hammock. “I must have fallen asleep.”
“Affectionate little bugger, isn’t she?”
“She’s a good kid, and harmless.”
“I don’t know about that. The Captain wants everyone to meet in the main tent. We’ve commandeered it.”
“I’m afraid I can’t walk.”
The squat man rolled his eyes and exhaled sharply. He bent down, picked up a clod of earth, and hurled it at the girl. She ran away terrified and in tears, though halted when out of throwing range. She would not leave her love.
“You didn’t have to do that. What’s this about?”
“One of the natives went for a rifle.”
“I doubt it was anything but curiosity. They’re fascinated by everything we do, you know.”
“Still, we have to talk about this. The Captain gave the guy a real good thrashing, and we’re going to decide what to do with the rest of them.”
“What do you mean, do?”
“It might not be safe here. We don’t know anything about these people.”
“These people couldn’t hurt a fly.”
“Yeah, well, it’s not your decision. Are you coming or not?”
“I couldn’t even if I wanted to.”
“Then take this, and make sure you make it perfectly clear to the natives you don’t want them anywhere near you.”
The soldier handed one of the magic sticks to the wounded man, who accepted it with no concealment of his irritation. The barking soldier turned back towards the center of the camp, on his way charging a few steps towards the girl and laughing as she fled farther from her vigil at the deathbed of her other half.
When she could no longer sense the cruel, scowling presence she took a few steps back towards her love.
She whirled around. No one had ever been able to sneak up on her. Grandfather was different. He was made of stone. And, for a man whose foot dragged and knees knocked together, the old man had lately shown he could move as silently as a ghost.
“Give it to the wind! I cannot believe the things I have felt today, and to think they are coming from my own granddaughter!”
“We are no longer your granddaughter. We are the man-girl of the mountains and the lowlands. We’re in love, and we have seen through the lies of The People.”
“He does not love. Look at him. The moment we left his sight he forgot about us.”
“I am him. My feelings for him need not be reciprocated; that he inspires them is reciprocation enough.”
“If this does not stop, it will mean The Valley of Hermits.”
“We are already in The Valley of Hermits,” the girl retorted. This disrespect stunned the old man. In the great spiral of years that had been his life he had never encountered such an insolent child, and found himself at a loss for words. When he found the composure to speak, it was halting and strained.
“I knew his kind would only bring disaster. They are pure ugliness and chaos. Their faces are ugly, their words are ugly, their feelings and the way they call each other by the name yu are ugly. Now they have made my precious granddaughter ugly, perhaps beyond fixing. Something has to be done.”
The old man walked away, the determined scowl on his face the only thing hinting at the intentions behind his placid eyes.
“I have no granddaughter. Tomorrow we will discuss what is to be done with the ugly girl that was formerly my favorite granddaughter. For now, there are more important things.”
She let him go, not wishing to respond. She would be banished from The People, no doubt, but the prospect seemed far less dismal that it had only that morning. She could never be happy with them again. Perhaps she would go with the Lowlanders. Or, if they would not have her, she would retreat into the wilderness to become a hermit. Alone in the high, barren places she could feel as she liked, and in time form an identity belonging solely to her.
The challenge, though daunting, excited her. Whatever it took to create an individual personality was a long and lonely process, and there was no guarantee that once it was finished anyone would understand or appreciate the person that resulted. But she was closer than any of the People of the Mountain had been before. Having already assumed the identity of one stranger, she could launch herself from that stepping-stone into perhaps more personal revelations, for one cannot examine herself without gazing into something that first casts a reflection.
She left her man alone while he slept. He needed his rest if he were to continue the fight against the ring of darkness closing in along the edges of his thoughts. Nor did he need to be awake for the girl to experience him; his dreams were more than enough, and oftentimes even more telling than any of his waking thoughts.
She felt her people coming long before they even knew where to search for her. There was now nothing on the mountain that breathed, crawled, swam, or burrowed that she could not locate if she wished to. The people moused their way closer to her, approaching the girl with the same awe and fear of advancing upon a hermit.
“This man, he trusts you?” asked the bravest of the group.
“He will not turn that weapon of his on you?”
The people exchanged uneasy looks. The one who spoke produced a few strips of meat from his pack. “We were told by their leader to feed them, but we are afraid that if we approached him...”
“Don’t worry. I will do it.”
The man holding the meat recoiled as the girl took the food from his hand. Nodding fearfully, he and the others backed away, leaving her with the man whose soul she shared.
She shook the young soldier gently. His dreams had taken on the form of tangled webs, the sticky filaments ensnaring his spirit as it tried to ascend to consciousness. The girl grabbed him by the shoulders and shook with all her might, violently shattering his cocoon of dreams and jolting him into wakefulness.
“What? Oh, it’s you.”
“Food? No, I don’t think I could.” His face was coated with a sticky film and his eyes crusted with flaking stones. When he spoke, his voice was no more than a rustling of leaves.
“Eat. We need our strength.”
“I... I can’t.”
The girl knew the man’s lack of appetite intimately, though hope compelled her to prolong his life as long as possible, however improbable his recovery might be. She wished she could explain to him that his death was not innocuous, and that his legacy would outlive him. He had imprinted himself on her, and as long as she lived a part of him would endure, even thrive as her Gemini. For the time being, though, all she could do was offer solace and affection to his waning spirit.
The man groaned as she placed the food in his mouth. He bit into the meat unenthusiastically, grew weary, and let it fall from his mouth onto the ground. Patiently, the girl retrieved the strip of warm flesh and positioned it between his teeth.
For her sake, the young soldier made an effort, managing to gulp down a few bites before turning on his side and vomiting it into the grass. The girl sighed heavily and placed her hand on his cheek. The wounded man smiled meekly. A few minutes later, he was asleep again, the girl lying across his body and supporting his head in her arms.
There was something strange about The People, she thought as her eyelids drooped from the pull of weariness. They had seemed so focused, so in control, their emotions barely discernible. This was in sharp contrast to the chaotic patois of feelings that had assailed them since the arrival of the Lowlanders.
The whole thing had grandfather’s mark all over it, but before she could meditate on it any further she was asleep and dreaming about a woman in a foreign land she had loved a lifetime ago.
She awoke at the same moment as the young soldier when the first bands of light trickling over the high serrated ridges fell across their entwined feet.
“You again? Every time I fall asleep, you end up jumping into the hammock with me. I don’t think I’ll ever understand what exactly...”
The man sat up rigidly in mid-sentence, a pang of panic in his gut. Seeing his rifle still slung on one of the trees supporting his hammock, he fell back into the mesh cradle with a sigh of relief.
“What a sun! What a valley! I dare say I’m starting to feel better. You’re my guardian angel, do you know that? I thought I was done for sure. There may be some life left in me yet.”
He stretched out his arms, feeling the strength return to them as the blood came rushing back into his fingers.
“Will we eat something?” The girl cooed delightedly in his ear.
“Eat, you say? No, not quite, but I am dying of thirst. Can you fetch me some water?”
The girl nodded graciously and bounded out of the hammock, entirely unable to contain her excitement. She ran to the village at full speed, her mind racing with the wondrous new possibilities the morning had presented her with.
Coming to the center of the camp, she saw something that made her dig in her heels and come to a shuddering halt. The People, every one of them from the youngest babe to the most venerable old masters, were crowded around the main tent. The poles had been taken down and the roof-flap torn away to reveal the scene inside.
The Lowlanders were on the ground in peaceful, natural poses, though there was nothing natural about the eerie stillness in which they slept. Strewn about the tent were strips of goat-meat, the same meat she had tried to feed her wounded soldier, meat she noticed with dawning horror was not charred, blackened, or otherwise cooked long on the spit.
She looked at her people. They stood solemnly over their victims, gazing grimly but otherwise unperturbed at their crime. Interspersed throughout the crowd the old man and his peers stood in meditation, annihilating any errant feeling or guilt or shame manifesting in the emotional void.
“No, I can’t believe it,” The girl stammered, collapsing onto the earth. In a moment of miserable terror, she felt calloused hands snatching away her feelings and throwing them into the devouring wind. Looking up, she saw her grandfather, his eyes fixed steadily on her. She wanted to weep, but already a great numbness was coming over her, smothering the pieces of her that had come into existence over the past two days.
“Oh my God, what have you people done?”
The young soldier was standing at the edge of the square, his drinking cup in one hand, the other wrapped around the stock of the rifle he was using as a crutch.
“No! Run!” the girl shouted, leaping to her feet and sprinting towards her love. She did not make it more than a few steps before a pair of knobby talons closed around her arms and dragged her back to the listless group of people.
“Grandfather, let go, please!”
The girl thrashed and struggled but the old man’s fingers were as firm as the coils of a serpent. The People took a step towards the young soldier, their feet rising and falling in perfect unison.
“Stay back!” he shouted, leveling the gun at the advancing mob. Deprived of his crutch, he pitched forward onto his knees and fumbled to bring the weapon up to bear.
“Don’t go another step, I’m warning you!”
The man’s finger fluttered against the trigger. Just as his eyes narrowed and it seemed the lowland weapon would finally reveal its mighty nature, the man slumped and fell on his side. His legs kicked wildly in the air as his spine arched and bucked in spasms. He rolled onto his back and lay still. Buried halfway up the shaft, an arrow protruded from just above his ear.
Emerging from behind a tent, Chalc cautiously approached the young soldier, another arrow nocked and drawn back in anticipation of a further struggle. Inspecting the lifeless body, Chalc nodded to The People and slung the bow over his back.
Many of The People held their heads. They felt as though they had been stung by an enormous bee, but the pain was momentary and already fading into memory. Chalc’s arrow had flown true and accurately, just as it always had.
The People felt along their cheeks and found that their faces were wet. They looked in amazement to the old man. He held in his arms the limp body of the girl, no longer struggling but being supported in the air, the toes of her limp, dangling legs surfing the earth.
Laying her on the ground reverentially, grandfather smoothed back the hair above her ear. A trickle of blood ran down her face from the wound that had erupted there. The old man stepped back from the body and let out a low moan. The tears gushed from his eyes in a raging torrent. The People buried their faces and fell to the ground weeping, the old man’s sobs ringing out louder than anyone among the people had ever thought possible.
The old man wrestled with his sorrow and threw it to the wind, which rejected the evil feeling with a hollow, mocking laugh. The old man pleaded and threatened and summoned other elements to his aid. The People wallowed in tears and misery.
The old man doubted they could ever survive this tragedy. That terrifying realization brought his thoughts back to The People, and his duty to them. Slowly, like a man trudging up a steep hill, he compelled the wind to banish his suffering. Conquering his feelings, he stood up and looked down pitilessly at his granddaughter with all the emotion he would bestow upon a fallen branch.
“What will we do?” one of The People asked, wiping the tears from her cheeks.
“We will go further, deeper than we ever have before, into the caves if necessary. We will hide from the world until the day when the world comes looking for us and surrounds us so we cannot escape. We will live as we always have, until we can do so no longer.”
The People nodded, though no one believed they could keep the world from them much longer.
The old man looked at the girl lying peacefully in the grass. His heart told him that she had once meant a great deal to him, though his mind would not allow him to remember. He wept for the first time since he had been a wailing infant. He would never do so again.
“Take nothing from the bodies that will remind us of today. Leave them on the ground. At least the birds and foxes will not feel hungry.”
As the people resumed their diaspora to farther fringes of the world, the old man grew aware of a gaily laughing voice in every stone and branch and falling leaf. The old man hoped it was just his aged mind playing a trick on him. He looked to his people. He saw their faces and knew they had heard it, too, and that the voice would never leave them.
Copyright © 2010 by Colin Lee Heintze