The old man is out collecting mushrooms when sees a white deer ascending through the trees towards the peaks. It is early spring and winter’s icy fangs are still descending from the top of the ridge and above that the sky is laden with swift-moving cloud. The creature stops and turns to him, radiant in the pale light. He bows and waits for it to pass and afterwards he sees that it has left small pile of dung. By the time he reaches this it has already turned into a clot of moss and vivid yellow flowers swarming with little beatles, emerald-green and buzzing.
He returns home and tells the old woman.
‘Could be the summer will be long, and hot,’ she says. She is small and her hands are gnarled and the tips of her hairy ears peek out from under her headscarf. She places log on a chopping block as she speaks and wraps twine around it and splits it into eighths with deft swings of her axe. ‘Could be that he wants to enjoy the cold while he can.’
The old man is unconvinced.
The next day he sees a gang of horned children, fat and naked, skipping down into the valley. Then, two days later, comes a shimmering black sheet, slithering along the ground, humming in a thin voice like cracking metal. The old man climbs a tree and waits for it to pass. Afterwards he follows the trail of rot it has left behind to a fissure in the ground and it is still fresh and oozing heat like blood from a scrape.
There is only one thing that will bring such a thing out at this time of year, and that is fresh meat.
He goes home and sharpens his sword and re-strings his bow, sitting cross-legged on his porch. The old woman sits nearby, smoking her pipe.
‘Mayhap they’re friendly,’ she says, puffing. ‘But my nose tells me there be a lot. And they have goats.’
‘Yes, my love.’
‘Hate goats. Settlers, probably.’
‘That be good.’
‘They ain’t settling here.’
‘I know it.’
‘How far away they be?’
The old woman sniffs the air.
‘Not far. Ther’ll be here before sunset.’
The old man works faster.
They are still out on the porch when the first stranger arrives, tall and dirty-faced and carrying an old woman, fast asleep, on his back. His scabbard is ornate, and though his clothes are faded and ragged he wears what he wears with precision and pride. He comes to a stop in front of them and looks from one to the other until the old woman points at the old man and says, ‘It’s him you’ll want gab at.’
‘Tha mi Kastananga an Taigh an Iar,’ says the man. ‘Agus tha mi a 'cur fàilte thu.’
The old man stares at him for a while. Then he holds out his hand and the old woman hands him her pipe. He takes a deep drag.
‘Taigh an lar.’
The man taps his chest and speaks slower.
‘Kastananga. Bha sinn a dh'innis a lorg thu, agus a bhiodh tu ag innse dhuinn far a bheil sinn a bu chòir a dhol às an seo.’
‘Speaking slowly ain’t gon help, friend.’
‘I don’t understand him,’ says the old woman. ‘I don’t understand a word.’
‘He’s a foreigner,’ says the old man. ‘Look at his hair.’
‘I know it. Where’s he from?’
‘Where you from?’ says the old man.
‘Duilich?’ The man puffs. ‘Chan eil mi a’ tuigsinn. Chan eil, innis dhomh. Càite a bheil Skeleton Valley?’
‘Skeleton Valley?’ The old man points up the slope, to where the tree-dappled peak of the ridge runs in a rugged black line against the sky. ‘Over the ridge.’
‘Thairis air an sin?’
‘Over the ridge.’
‘They look thirsty,’ says the old woman. ‘Let’s at least get him some water.’
She jogs around the back of the house. When she comes back she is carrying two water-skins and drops them at the man’s feet like two colossal livers.
‘Do they need so much?’ says the old man.
‘Aye, that’n more. There be fifty or so,’ says the old woman.
‘Tha mi a' toirt taing dhut,’ says Kastananga. ‘Cuiridh mi feadhainn eile a dh'iarraidh sin, ma tha mi 'Mhàigh uairean..’
The old man and old woman shrug and point at the skins and head into their cottage. Then they sit in the gloom, holding hands, watching through the window as the man walks back down the path. When he is gone, the old man rests his head on the old woman’s lap.
‘It were bound to happen,’ says the old woman, stroking his hair.
‘What’ll they make of it?’
‘What all of ‘em do. Starin’ and wondrin’ first, then growin’ used, then forgettin’ it be there, even.’
The old man lifts his head.
‘What’s that sound?’
‘Voices, my love. Other people’s voices.’
A few minutes later two youths arrive. They look around for the cottage Kastananga mentioned, and the old couple, but there is nothing except two huge fig trees, their towering crowns rustling despite the windlessness. They grab the water-skins, staggering under the weight, and flee.
Kastananga wanders out across the dew-dampened grass to the centre of the encampment. It is still chilly and dark and the carts are all drawn in a circle around them, as they have been every night since they left Philan. The others are huddled together beneath sacks and blankets, fast asleep. Except Paragareen – he is on top of one of the carriages off to the left, swinging his lanky legs. He waves at Kastananga, and Kastananga waves back.
He goes back to his tent. Grandma and Maphna are asleep, tangled up in each other, the older woman snoring in the younger one’s ear. He shakes them awake.
‘Dawn already?’ says Grandma.
‘Can you see it?’
‘Is it as big as they say?’
‘It is huge.’
Grandma wraps her arms around Maphna and pulls her in tight. The girl’s eyes flicker open and then close and then open again. She looks up at Kastananga and smiles.
‘Day one,’ she says sleepily.
‘Come.’ Kastananga pries Grandma’s arms, wrinkled and velvety, off the girl.
‘It’s cold,’ says Grandma. ‘Goddess isn’t awake yet.’
But of course Goddess is, and of course Grandma comes.
The sun is rising off to the right when they emerge, Grandma clinging to Kastananga’s back. The others have woken up too and are huddled together, whispering. Down in the valley, weaving through the dense green canopy, are two mirrored ribbons of water. Each bifurcates and then bifurcates again before meeting the lake in gaping estuary off to the right. Even at this distance they can hear the hiss of the surf and sometimes, when the wind turns and surges towards them in shimmering ripples of the treetops, they can hear birds.
But that is not what they are looking at.
What they are looking at is the giant skeleton sprawled across the valley floor. Directly in front of them are colossal ribs spearing up from amidst the foliage between the rivers. There are seven of them, fang-sharp and unblemished. There is an eighth also, but it has shattered and ends abruptly in a tangle of vicious splinters off to the left. Scattered along the riverbank are colossal neck-bones and, peeking out of the sand by the lake, the smooth nub of a half-buried skull, forty feet long.
Kastananga stares at it along with the others and wonders if it is true what the people near here say - that this dead beast’s magic still haunts this place, like the last glimmers of the sun on high clouds at dusk, silvery and cool and nothing like the fire it is born from. Then slowly his thoughts wander. This thing was once alive and far mightier than anything he has seen or heard of, yet there is nothing of it now but these fractured remnants. Compared to it, how tiny his people are, and how slim a sliver of the universe they inhabit. How transient their memories - of people and places long gone, of feelings only they have felt, of moments only they have seen. And how heavy and relentless is the erasing hand of time is on it all.
‘Praise the Mother,’ whispers Grandma. ‘Put me down.’
The old woman summons the others and while they gather in ranks Maphna comes up behind Kastananga and takes his hand. It is the first time she has done so in weeks.
‘Blessed is the Mother,’ says Grandma. ‘Look what She has given us.’
The gathered mutter, and nod, and hold each other. Grandma toes the earth, grey-black and crammed with greenery.
‘Look where the Mother has lead us - to where the land is fertile, and the forests bountiful. All things happen to hasten the coming of the Apotheosis. Let us burn the flame She bequeathed to us here. Let us tend to the fire upon the highest peak and in the lowest valley.’
They lower themselves to their knees and kiss the ground and though they have done this every day for their entire lives it has never felt so right or so joyous. Then they rise and hold each other and sob for the past and for the future and for the transfixing thought that, finally, they will wake up tomorrow in the same place they did today.
Afterwards Kastananga walks over to Paragareen.
‘How was the night?’ he asks.
‘Just like every night since we got here.’
‘I didn’t hear anything.’
‘You weren’t awake. I was. I saw.’
‘They came close enough to see?’
‘What were they?’
‘This time? Three kids fat kids, holding hands. They just stood out by that tree.’ He points. ‘Just stood there, staring at me, singing.’
‘That was it?’
‘Yup. Just singing. You know what their voices are like.’ He breathes in deep. ‘They scarpered before dawn.’
‘You may retire now. You must be tired.’
‘No worries. Gave me time to think.’
‘About why we’ve got to be so damn grateful to Goddess. I mean, if She’s so great, why doesn’t she drive this lot away? First Tarsu, and now this.’ He grins. ‘Maybe Her writ don’t run here, eh?’
‘Watch your tongue.’
Paragareen stares off into the forest for a few moments. Then he jumps down off the cart and hangs his head.
‘Yes, my lord. I’m sorry.’
Kastananga watches him for a few moments.
‘Go and get some sleep. You’ve had a long night.’
‘Thank you, m’lord.’
Paragareen lopes back to his tent and when he is gone Kastananga peers at the trees. He sees nothing. Then something grabs him from behind. He stiffens for an instant before recognizing the slim forearms - Maphna. She slides around in front of him and kisses him and when they part she keeps her eyes closed.
‘Mmm,’ she says. ‘I’m not sure I could have gone much longer without that.’
‘You are a vulgar woman,’ says Kastananga.
‘Vulgar, and common. But.’ She opens her eyes and sweeps her hand at the ground. ‘You cannot hew crops from the soil with your sword, my lord.’
‘Then I shall have to hitch a plough to you, and drive you up the hillside like an ox.’
She twitches her nose and grins.
‘Tease,’ she says.
The land is utterly unlike the old country. There the soil was dry and the fruits sour and when summer came it came with desiccating winds and sunshine like yellow acid. Here, one need only drop seeds, and the next day they will have sprouted. The mornings are always dewy and even the goats, skinny-legged and fretful, grow fat and slow and sprout so much wool that they have to be shorn twice, then three times, then four times a year.
They begin by felling trees in a spiral from their carts. Perhaps they take a little too much glee in toppling the ancient hemlocks and swamp oaks and spruces, thinks Kastananga. Perhaps there is something vicious in how they swing their axes, sweat spraying, eyes narrowed. But the farther the tree line is from them, the farther the things in the forest stay. So he lets them carry on, even if Grandma mutters about wastefulness and avarice and taking more from the Mother than she will, in the end, be willing to give.
They build the church first. It takes them a few weeks to learn how to work the tough oak but soon they erect a frame, and then a roof, and finally walls. They try to top the building off with a dome in the old style but the wood warps and cracks. Sitting around the fire that evening someone ventures that perhaps now that they are in a new place they should build in a new style, but Kastananga chews slowly on a piece of roast goat and shakes his head.
‘There is only one Goddess,’ he says. ‘And there is only one right way to worship her.’
No one argues with him and eventually, on winter’s doorstep, they make a dome that stays. After they top it off with a golden leaf Kastananga praises their work and never once reminds any of them that they would not have finished had he not insisted.
At the first service one of the women unwraps a small chunk of incense she has brought all the way from Philan. She breaks off a small piece and puts it in a brazier and they gather around it. They close their eyes and for the briefest moment they are all back in the old country. But from the instant they open them afterwards they all begin to think of this place as their home.
They call it Komas-in-the-Valley.
Some days, down in the valley, the mist swirls about the rapier-sharp ribs like frothing milk. Some days sunlight clinks off them, sharp and blinding. In the summer great flocks of birds descend between them and into the forest as if the ribcage was really the skeletal hand of some buried god offering up feed from the underworld. But it never changes, even if, unbeknownst to them, the once-foreign people building their thatch-roofed homes on the slopes slowly are.
Come the spring a group of them travel over the peaks with huge bundles of wool piled on their heads. When they return they have metal tools and silks and one or two small nuggets of gold. They melt those down and mix them with resin and then two women climb up the dome and paint it gold. When the gold is dried they descend and the rest of the village anoint them in oil and let them sleep by the altar for seven nights. Maphna takes them bowls of stew every evening and stays with them till late, chatting and playing dice.
One night she returns, waddling and holding her giant belly, frowning.
‘What is it?’ says Kastananga.
She shakes her head.
‘It’s bad luck.’
Kastananga looks back up the way she came, but he can see only the path winding up to the middle of the village, and the church beyond that, and the cottages of the others dotted around amidst the thinned-out trees.
‘What did you see?’
‘Something. Up on the church dome.’
Kastananga gets his bow and arrow and heads for the door.
‘No. Love.’ Maphna comes after him and takes his hand. ‘No. Leave the beasts of the forest to the forest.’
‘They are not in the forest. They are on Goddess’s house. Show me.’
‘Grandma would not have wanted this.’
He takes her hand.
‘She’d have been the first out there. Show me.’
She leads him back to the church. Off to the left the sun is glinting off the terraced paddies proceeding down the ridgeside like mirrored scales. Off to the right is a grove of oranges, and though the ones that grow here are fat and full of water and altogether too sweet, they ferment splendidly. Paragareen is there now, sipping the liquor from little barrel. He wanders over.
‘Yah, m’lord,’ says one. ‘Where are we going?’
‘There is a demon on the church roof.’
Paragareen goes pale.
‘Should we - should we ring the bell?’
‘Check on the children.’
When they get to the church there is nothing there but the last glimmer of sunset on the golden leaf atop the dome. By now others have joined them. They wait for a while but nothing happens. Someone goes in and checks on the two women and when he comes out he says, ‘They’re fast asleep.’
‘Or dead,’ says Paragareen
‘No, they’re warm.’
‘What?’ says the man.
Maphna puts her finger to her lips, and signals him over. He walks towards them, legs shaking, and does not look back until he is past Kastananga. When he does he sees a weasel on the dome, small and bushy-tailed and glowing. It watches them with empty white eyes, and licks its paw.
Kastananga raises his bow.
‘You there!’ he says. ‘Begone!’
Kastananga nocks an arrow and lets loose but the creature catches it in its jaws with a snap of its head, and then turns back to Kastananga.
‘What do you want?’ shouts Kastananga.
The weasel stares at them for a long time and Kastananga realizes that it is staring at Maphna’s belly. He fires another arrow.
‘If you touch her,’ he says, ‘If you come near her -’
With a yelp, the weasel leaps into the air, and disappears.
The others gasp and clap their hands over their eyes. Some of them rush into the church and fling themselves on the altar. Kastananga turns to Maphna, and she is shivering, arms around her belly.
‘I don’t think it’s me it wants,’ she says.
Kastananga takes her in his arms.
‘It doesn’t matter what it wants,’ he says. ‘We do not belong to it. We belong to Goddess.’
After the boy arrives – after he loses Maphna – Kastananga he gets in the habit of going for long walks through the shuddering heather and rhododendrons on the high peaks. It is a habit he will never lose. Though the child is beautiful and healthy, his eyes remind him of his mother, and when he holds him in his arms it is like cupping the last glimmering fragments of a star. So Kastananga goes alone and leaves the child with Paragareen and his ever-smiling primary, who bows when she takes him, and calls him ‘Little Lord.’ Most days he makes it all round the rim of the valley. It gives him time to think, though always his thoughts drift to the same thing: why do the things in the forest still gather at the edge of Komas-in-the-Valley, night after night, staring in through the windows of his house?
One day he returns in time for evening mass and he sees children running about in the ferns and through the tree trunks and climbing the thick black boughs of an ancient oak that just three days earlier had been home to a cloud of tiny glowing rhinoceroses. They are eating the hard red fruit that grows on a black-barked shrubs dotted through the forest, fruit that seems to Kastananga change colour all year long, and so he cannot tell if they are ripe or not. But the children do and they run about with the juices glistening and sweet on their fat cheeks and their hands smeared with dark soil. He realizes that their flesh is made of the valley’s earth and their lungs are full of the valley’s air and none of them have ever seen or even thought of the howling sunbaked ravines he grew up in. They are less afraid of the demons than they should be and left alone go traipsing down to the river to gawp at the great ribs. Some head down to the lake and bring back crabs and shellfish and fish. After mass their parents make crab stew and the old folk - for that is what they are now - all quaff it like they have not eaten in weeks and chat happily about the old country, that far-off place now subsiding into memory like fallen petals into the soil.
When he gets back to the village, he detours to the orchard and picks up an orange. He peels it and takes a bite and then tosses it to the ground. It is too sweet.
The boy looks like his mother, and speaks like his father. His name is Adirit. Before he is born there are only miscarriages; after him there are more children than they can cope with. Eventually they clear out more trees and dig new channels down from the peaks, where even in the summer there is snow, bright and twinkling like ground-up mirrors.
One day, Kastananga gets up early, fretful for no reason, and packs a small bag with food and water. Then he wakes Adirit.
‘Get dressed,’ he says. ‘Let’s go for a walk.’
They head out of the village and up the ridgeside.
‘It is important to survey the land you are responsible for,’ says Kastananga. ‘You must know its every inch. People will come to you for justice and advice.’
‘And the source of all justice is?’
‘In the stories of Goddess, and of her Avatars.’
‘Good. Tell me the story of the creation.’
Adirit chews his lip for a moment, and nods.
‘In the beginning there was nothing but nothing,’ he says. ‘There was not even time. And then in the nothingness there was something. In the darkness there was light. And the light was good, the first of all things. The light was called Goddess.’
When he speaks he is like his mother too. Kastananga closes his eyes and listens, but it is too much, so he opens them again.
‘The whole story?’
‘Goddess looked about Herself and realized She was alone and that within Her She contained all things that could be. And so after an eternity She reached within Herself and took out the First World and cast it out into the Martuk, the Ocean of Black. But the First World drifted away and it could not reach Her, and all those on the First World were lost from Her grace forever.
‘Then She created the Second World and held it close to Her bosom. And for a long time the trees on this world grew tall and the people prospered. But they grew covetous and they climbed the trees and tried to touch the face of Goddess. And so She pushed them away and it too drifted off into the darkness.
‘Then finally She created the Third World, and pushed it gently away from Her. And between it and Her She fed out a long golden thread, so that this world would drift too, but those who believed and lived righteously would find their way to Her. Where are we going, father?’
Kastananga looks about him as if he had just woken up. They have crested the ridge and the adjoining valley lies before them, a great green-furred cleft in the earth running for miles in either direction.
‘Let’s loop around and head back to the village. Finish the story.’
‘What of the golden thread?’
The boy holds up his hand and points to his veins.
‘It runs in us. We, the Children of Goddess, are the thread that binds creation to the creator.’
‘Very good.’ Kastananga nods. ‘Very good.’
As they head back down the boy notices that there are columns of smoke rising out of the trees down by the river, close to the skeleton. Then, though it is very far, he notices one of the trees fall.
‘Is it a fire?’ he asks.
Kastananga stares for a long time, lips thin, and shakes his head.
‘It’s settlers,’ he says.
‘Yes. Other settlers. Polytheists, I would hazard.’
The boy smiles.
Kastananga purses his lips.
‘Polytheists,’ he says.
Adirit has heard so much about Philan, yet he cannot begin to imagine what kind of a place it must have been. He cannot imagine living on soil that is not dark and rich and moist with life. He cannot imagine bald mountain peaks not covered in glowing snow even at the height of summer. He cannot imagine valleys not drowned in lush green, the air reverberating with the cacophony of life.
Even when he can - when some vision of the old country wafts through his mind, gossamer and transient, like streaming clouds - he cannot see what it is about the place that could possibly lay claim to dictating how he should live now. What it is about those far lost orchards and silent graveyards that means he still must not walk the forest in the dark, or approach the shimmering things that watch him from the boughs, or eat flesh only on some days and avoid milk on others? The old folk don’t seem to know either, for when he asks them why, they tell him only that that is how his people have lived for ten thousand years, and that if they do not keep living that way, there will be no reason for the world to exist any longer.
Sometimes he thinks they are just making it all up. That one day, when they were young, they all sat down and decided that it would be better just to make up this place and call it the Old Country and pretend like all the rules they have come from there, to stop people like him from questioning them. But of course, he does not say this out loud. This, or the other thing he thinks when he is told to obey his elders - that an old fool is still a fool, regardless of their age.
One day Adirit wanders along one of the spring-fattened streams, climbing up past butter-yellow flowers twitching in the breeze, and finds Paragareen sitting with his feet in the water. When he smiles Adirit sees that he has lost some more teeth. If he did not know him he would look like some terrifying old man-eating hermit, like in the stories from the Old Country.
‘Ya, Paragareen,’ says Adirit. ‘Why so clean today?’
The old man chuckles.
‘Ah, little lord, we have visitors.’
‘Go up to the village. Them fellows from down in the valley’ve come up to say hello.’
Adirit sprints up the path and out of the trees to where the village now spreads in a sprawling patchwork of houses and water-filled paddies crowned, at it peak, by the shiny and golden-brown church. Everyone is gathered by the door and his father and the other elders are sitting in a semi-circle on red-and-brown carpets that the goat-herders learned how to make a few years earlier. In front of them are another group of people, five or six maybe, all of them with long hair. When he comes closer he sees that it is three women and three men and they are all drinking goat milk from wooden bowls.
One of the men holds up his bowl and smiles. Kastananga looks up at Adirit and beckons him over.
‘This,’ he says, shaking Adirit by his shoulders. ‘My son.’ He points to himself, and then to Adirit. ‘Son.’
The man holding the bowl peers at Adirit. He wears his beard long and his eyes are kohl-rimmed and even at this distance Adirit can smell the perfume he is wearing. His smile is broad and he nods and points to one of the men next to him.
‘Semea,’ he says. ‘Nire semea.’
After the others have finished drinking their milk the three women come forward, each carrying a wooden box. One of them is young - no older than him, Adirit thinks - and her hair is long and thick and purple. It curves down under her face and when he follows the line of her jaw up past her ear and across her dark brown cheek he realizes that she is staring at him. Then he realizes that he is staring at her and they both look away at the same instant, and then back at each other, and then, smiling, away again.
The girl puts her box down and retreats quickly. The man with the beard thumps his chest.
‘Dugu,’ he says. ‘Portzelana egiten dugu.’
The man opens one of the boxes and pulls out a giant chunk of bone, white and pitted and shapeless.
‘Hau. Hau hartuko dugu, erre, eta ehotzeko hautsa sartu.’
He puts the bone back in the box the opens the next one. Inside is some sort of white dust and Adirit realizes that it is ground bone. The man scoops some up and runs it through his fingers and it is so light some of it drifts off in the wind in a smoky veil.
He closes the box.
‘Erretzea eta ehotzeko ondoren, nahastu ditugu kimikoak eta gero urarekin. Gure portzelana ederrena da! Pertsonak osotik etortzen da erosteko.’
He reaches forward and opens the last box, and lifts something out of it. The villagers gasp. It is a bowl, smooth and round and milk-white, so fine that they can see the outline of the man’s fingers through it. On its surface is are vivid blue images, and when they look closer they realize that it is a picture of their village - people and crops and church and trees rendered in flawless azure, and above it all, a faceless woman, hands spread, hair blazing like rays of the sun.
The man gets up and approaches Kastananga and offers him the bowl. Kastananga takes it, and bows deep, and turns to the others.
‘Bring out the carpet,’ he says
When they are gone, the village buzzes with chatter. Kastananga holds his hand up, everyone falls silent.
‘It is good that we are on good terms with these people,’ he says. ‘And we must do nothing to change that. But remember that they are unbelievers, and that this was their land first, and they know it better. Burn the Flame, children. Burn the Flame above all else.’
Adirit wanders back out into the forest. After a while he comes across Paragareen, leaning up against a tree, reeking of wine and taking swigs from a little barrel.
‘You’re drunk again,’ says Adirit.
Paragareen grins, and hiccoughs.
‘And you, little master, are in love.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘I saw you making eyes at that girl. The girl with the purple hair. She’s right pretty.’
‘She’s an unbeliever.’
‘Eh,’ says Paragareen, taking another swig. ‘Good women is good women.’
Then he slumps over, and falls asleep.
The truth - Kastananga has long since discovered - is a feral and furtive thing. Sometimes you stumble upon it when you are at your most lost. Sometimes you walk right past it and only realize you did so later. He remembers an old man who lived in the palace when he was young, back when the Empire of Heaven had ruled Philan. He had taught Kastananga the difference between a circle and a sphere, and then said, ‘What would you see when you looked at a circle side-on?’
Kastananga had thought about this for a bit, and then the answer had hit him like the morning sun on the sea.
‘Nothing,’ he’d said. ‘You’d see nothing.’
‘Look around you,’ said the old man. ‘There are shapes beyond imagining. But we do not look at them right. So we do not see.’
Now, years later, the memory comes back to him for no reason, as he approaches the top of the ridge, back aching, wheezing. He has come to accept that this is how his memory works now. Like tumbling mess of water reflecting the past in shattered flashes. Like a fountain of gibberish bubbling briefly into poetry.
It has been so long since he has come this way. Though he has walked all over Skeleton Valley he has never crested the peak and come back the way they came. But today he goes down the creamy brown path, little trickles of dusty soil preceding him, stopping every now and then to sip from his water-skin with quivering lips. The air is thick and close and he sweats more than he has sweated in a long time. By the time he gets to the little path leading off into the trees it is growing dark. By the time he is at the end of the path and staring at the little cottage in front of him, smoke billowing from its chimney, it is dusk, and there are already two lamps burning inside.
He looks in through the window, but there is no one there. He taps it a few times - it is made of glass like he has never seen, smooth and clear and utterly unblemished - but there is no response. There is a creak, and the door opens, but there is no one there to open it.
‘Hello?’ he says. ‘Hello?’
The door closes.
Kastananga hobbles round the back and there is nothing there either but for the edge of the forest gaping through the tree-trunks like a great black maw. He turns and hobbles back down the path. As he goes, the door to the cottage opens and shuts, opens and shuts.
Just as he reaches the path leading back up to the ridge, he hears voices. At first he thinks it is some trick of the forest, and keeps on. But then he recognizes the language - the language of the folk who live in the valley. He wanders off the path, in the darkness, through the trees. After a while he sees three valley-dwellers standing by a tree, two men, and a woman, talking to each other furiously. Not far away, clinging to the trunk of a tree, is a small antlered child. It knocks its head on the tree, woodpecker-swift, and coos into the darkness. More creatures appear. A bird of some kind, big-eyed and razor-beaked, staring. A fat woman, two carrying giant toads under her arms. Some sort of pulsing cloud, glowing greenish-blue, and humming softly. The three people turn to these beasts, and bow, and say something. Kastananga cannot understand all of it, but he can understand the most important part.
The woman steps forwards, sobbing, and holds something out. A tiny, wailing bundle.
Kastananga puts his hand to his mouth.
The fat woman puts the toads on the ground and all three waddle forward together. They stop a few feet away from the woman and stare at her. She lowers the baby to the ground. It kicks at the leaf litter and reaches out for her, but she steps back, wiping tears, and buries her face in one of the men.
‘Please,’ says one of the men. ‘Please.’
The fat woman looks back at the others. There are more now. A deer, a bucket with legs, an open doorway. Then Kastananga sees the weasel that appeared on the church. It ferrets its way between the legs of the others and up to the baby and the child stops crying when it looks up at it.
The three humans drop to their knees and touch their foreheads to the ground. The fat woman reaches out and picks up the child and it begins to sob again. But the humans just watch as she turns and walks away, the child howling in her hands, the toads and weasel and other ghouls following and watching and licking their lips.
Kastananga can take no more. He comes striding out of the forest, waving his walking stick.
‘Away with you, demons!’ he shouts. ‘Leave that child, and away with you!’
The creatures see him. An instant later they take off into the darkness. Kastananga puffs after them, but he is nowhere near fast enough. Within a few seconds they, and the baby, are gone.
The three valley-dwellers run after him. One of them shoves him and shouts in his face.
‘What is wrong with you?’ says Kastananga. ‘How can you sacrifice your children like this?’
They shout at him for a long time. He cannot understand most of it, but he does catch one sentence:
‘You stupid old man. Do you want us all to die?’
Their main problem is time. It passes differently for each of them. Take, for example, just the things that grow out of the ground - the mushrooms, the cicadas, the creaking old oaks. The mushrooms pop out in the moisture of autumn and scramble in slow-motion over whatever rot they can find. By the first frosts they are already dead and deflating. The cicadas sleep through twenty-seven cycles of this, unaware that time is passing at all. And to the oaks, these lives, and many others, are no more consequential or discernible than the jostling of bubbles in the foam on the lakeshore.
It makes it very difficult to come to any sort of agreement.
Still, there are some of them that can just about understand each other. It is raining when the woman with antlers arrives by the well, a feathery downpour, cold and swirling in the gusting wind. Two toads waddle in her aftermath. The child is on top of one, and he is already glowing too. They wait for one sunless day, and then another, sitting in the dry patches beneath a tree. Then finally then a stag arrives, and a hare. An hour or so later the weasel comes too, carrying some arrows in its mouth, and through the whole meeting it sits with its paws draped over their shafts, chewing at their heads. Little beads of glowing ichor drip from its lips to the ground and fizzle away in little clouds of mites.
The child has something to say, says the woman.
It is new, says someone else.
It has something to teach us.
The child looks up at the woman. She smiles back.
You are one of us now and you will be heard as such.
My head hurts. I have too many thoughts.
You will get used to it. Share the most important ones.
About the firstborn?
The child looks about the gathered creatures. He remembers being afraid of them, not so long ago, but now he can see that they are just there, no more or less than the sky is above him and the earth below.
They are of two different kinds. The ones who made me are not the ones who live up on the hillside.
Why are we here?
To discuss this matter.
This matter is closed
The child says it is not.
If they are of two separate types then those on the hillside did not render their firstborn to us.
The fat woman squats and strokes a toad.
Then they are in arrears.
Many years of arrears.
They have cut many trees and diverted the waters. We have let them.
They did not render the firstborn.
Their firstborn still lives amongst them.
They do not believe in or like us.
We do not need to be liked.
Stop. The woman raises her hand. Do we punish them or not?
The weasel has not spoken this whole time. Now it stops chewing and raises its head.
We punish them, it says.
The others are silent. The woman looks at them one by one, but none objects. Then she stands up and turns in the direction of the village on the hillside, out across the valley, and begins to sing. Her voice is low, so low it falls to the ground and travels through the earth and in the valley the humans feel it in their feet and think perhaps it is an earthquake.
Clouds begin to gather up on the ridge.
Sometimes he thinks if there is light in him, it is only because he is reflecting hers.
The first time he goes looking for her he sneaks around the edge of the Porcelain-Makers’ village, watching them gathering fragments of bone from the forest floor, squatting and sifting through the soil with wicker frames shaped like sails. He finds her not far away, sitting alone, cross-legged and still. Later she will explain to him that she was listening to the forest grow. The creeping cilia of fungus in the leaf litter. The shuffling footsteps of millipedes. The sighing of fat clouds flopping down the mountainsides. He realizes, too, that she must have heard him coming too. That she sat there letting him watch her without moving a muscle. But she never says so. In their long years together he will learn that this is the kind of person she is - that she never says a thing unless it needs to be said, and that to her mind, there are very few such things.
The first deluge lasts for a week. Clouds tower over one side of Skeleton Valley - and only one side - colossal and dark-bellied and convulsed with lightning. When they collapse they do so in a pounding shower that floods the paddies and sends most of the crop sailing down the mountainside, tender and half-grown, brief green scars amidst the churning mud.
Then the landslides begin.
The first one carries away a heaving slice of forest and leaves the hillside raw and brown in its wake. Then another carries away some of the paddies. Then the rain abates, and the villagers emerge from their huts and pick their way awkwardly over the sodden ground to inspect the damage. The sky is clear and the sun already baking the moisture from the soil. They have a lot to do, they think, but it can be done. Komas-in-the-Valley will heal.
But the next day the clouds gather again and, finally, mid-afternoon, there is a cloudburst high on the ridge. Halfway through the downpour they hear a groan, and a rumble. They look up at the church and its dome has split down the middle. There is something dancing about at the top of the dome, something glimmering and white. It pauses for an instant and looks down at them, licking its paw.
An instant later, the earth slips away beneath their feet.
The hillside collapses and takes everything with it in a grinding calamity of mud and trees and people and goats that descends furiously into the valley and into the river. When it is over and the last tree falls, crackling, there is silence, and the porcelain-makers rush over to find barely half of the villagers alive.
Osayanu finds Kastananga lying on his back on the riverbank, and though his leg is broken, and his jaw too, he is alive. She then spends four days staggering over the wreckage looking for Adirit. When she finally finds him, tangled up in foliage nearly halfway across the valley, she thinks he is dead. But when she takes his arm and rests her head on his cheek, he twitches, and smiles.
‘I knew it would be you,’ he says.
Kastananga takes months to recover. Though he is awake he does not speak and does not recognize anyone. Osayanu and Adirit build a bed for him and take turns sitting by his side. At night he mutters about the things in the forest and has long conversations with someone he calls My Lady. When Osayanu asks if that is Adirit’s mother, Adirit smiles and puts his arm around her thin shoulders and says, ‘No, my love.’
The other survivors disperse into the village. Most of them build new houses by the riverbank and cut down more trees and soon their paddies sprawl in silver and emerald profusion all about the giant ribs. As they dig and till they unearth thousands of bone fragments and they give these in baskets to the porcelain-makers and learn each their language. There are squabbles and fights and arguments about ritual. But there is also love and shared meals and none amongst them forget that when the earth itself tried to sweep them away it was the porcelain-makers who dug them out of its wet grasp and brought them back to the light.
One day the porcelain-makers present them with a gift - a porcelain shrine, and inside a gold-rimmed leaf. They erect it by the riverside and when strangers come to their village from now on they call it Porcelain Leaf.
By spring Kastananga’s eyes are livelier and he takes to sitting on the front porch, eating slices of orange that Osanayu gives him one by one. In early summer Paragreen emerges from the trees, nearly naked, and keeps him company. Osayanu insists that he should wash if he wishes the stay there.
‘Ah, go to hell,’ says the old man, grinning toothlessly. ‘I’m as Goddess intended me to be.’
The next day, when he arrives, Osayanu pours a bucket of water over his head. He squeals and thrashes about on the floor, but she walks back in, silent, and comes out with another one. This is one full of suds and bubbles and she pours this over his head too. Paragareen gets up and slips over and by now there is a group of children watching. Osayanu pays them an five oranges each to hold him down and walks in and out of the house carrying alternate buckets of water with and without soap until finally Paragareen is cleaner than he has ever been in his life.
Later that day Adirit comes home from the lake, carrying a sackful of fish, and Kastananga is sitting alone on the steps of the house, scanning the village with narrowed eyes. There are some oranges in a bowl by the door, and he takes one and sits by his father.
Kastananga shakes his head.
‘They are too sweet,’ he says.
It is the first time he has spoken in almost a year. Adirit waits for him to say more, but he just sits there, gazing out over the houses and the giant ribs.
‘Would you like something else?’
‘Where is Paragareen?’
‘I don’t know.’
The old man flexes his shoulders.
‘Bring me my shoes, and a bowl.’
‘Where are you going?’
Kastananga looks at Adirit and gets up, slowly. Adirit goes to help him but he pushes him away and hobbles into the house. When he comes out he is wearing a heavy cloak and the pair of leather sandals Osayanu traded a set of three bowls to a peddler for the autumn before. He heads off, out of the house, and away from the riverbank.
‘Father, where are you going?’
‘We cannot remain here. Come.’
He heads deeper into the trees. Adirit follows.
‘Where are you going?’
‘We are home.’
‘That is not my home.’ Kastananga pauses, and looks back at Adirit. ‘Who is that woman?’
‘Osayanu? She is my...we live together.’
‘Live together?’ Kastananga shakes his head. ‘No, she is not suitable. She is common, and an unbeliever.’
‘She’s cared for you all this winter long.’
‘That is kind of her, but she is not suitable. Get the others. Come.’
‘Father, wait.’ Adirit frowns. ‘What do you mean she is unsuitable?’
‘I do not need to explain myself to you. You are forbidden from seeing her again.’
‘Yes, forbidden. Forbidden. You are familiar with this word. They are all unbelievers down there, and it is time we returned home.’
‘You can’t be serious.’ Adirit walks up to the old man, and touches him gently on the shoulder. ‘Come. Let’s go home.’
‘I am going home. Where are you going?’
‘Father, there is nothing left. The landslide brought everything down with it. There is nowhere for you to go. Look.’ He points up to where the cascading vines and saplings are colonizing the indented hillside. ‘There’s nothing there.’
‘Then we will build a new place. Stop arguing with me. It is getting late and we must begin before dark.’
Adirit takes a deep breath, and shakes his head.
‘No, father. No. We can’t leave the village. We won’t.’
Adirit shakes his head again. Kastananga watches him for a long time, chewing his lip. Then he shrugs.
‘Very well. I will be off on my own, then.’
‘You are a grown man. You can choose to turn your back on who you are if you like, but I will not.’
Kastananga shuffles over to Adirit and pokes him in the chest with his walking-stick.
‘What do you think all those things I taught you when you were a child were? Do you think they were just stories, like the ones these people make up? That they were just a way of comforting ourselves at night? They were not stories, son. They were the truth. There is only one of those. Either you believe it to be the case, or you too are an unbeliever.’ He spits. ‘Those people are baby-killers and infidels. They were kind to us and for that we will thank them in time. But we will not live with them and call them brothers.’
‘And what of the children?’
‘What children?’ Kastananga blinks. ‘Is that woman with your child?’
Adirit holds Kastananga’s gaze for a moment, and looks away. The old man sniffs.
‘You are not the boy I raised,’ he says. ‘You are not the son I raised.’
‘I’m the son who looked after you while you were lying on your deathbed, old man.’
‘If you expect thanks for looking after your parents, then you truly are one of them, not one of us.’
Kastananga turns and shuffles off into the trees. Adirit goes after him but the old man turns and bring his cane down in one vicious slice across his face. When he wakes up, he is long gone, and so is the sun.
Kastananga is not alone on the hillside. Not everyone wanted to stay down in the valley with the unbelievers. Though most of those who came up and joined him in the little huts clinging to the slope like mushrooms to a log are old, there are a few youngsters, and sometimes that gives him hope.
When he can think of nothing else to do, he descends the hillside, hobbling through the trees, and heads to the river. Off to the north is a ford, where the water flows frothing over an expanse of gravel, cool even at noon, shallow enough for him to cross without concern. He does this and loops around the other side of Porcelain Leaf, and from there he can see through the trees to the houses. What he sees is no different to what he has seen before. Children carrying buckets of paints. Adults heaving baskets of bone and food and pails of water. Chatter and laughter and, sometimes, voices raised in song and argument.
Then he looks up the hillside and sees the scar where the church and the paddies used to be. The once raw soil darkened now and the edges of where the ground fell away softened with foliage. There are already towering clumps of bamboo and thin-trunked birches crowding the slope and in amongst them are the slim youth of what will eventually become sprawling swamp oaks.
How is it, he wonders, that things could disappear so utterly, and not even be mourned? When did world become so incomprehensible? Had it just changed while he was preoccupied other things - with digging channels and smoothing out the paddyfields and overseeing the village’s slow conquest of the forest? Had it changed abruptly that day, when all of it had tumbled down? Or had he just fooled himself into believing that the world was orderly and good, when really he was just stumbling around in a maze, with pinholes for eyes?
Sometimes the grief becomes so intense he cannot breathe, and all he sees are the remaining moments of his life passing like droplets into a vast black cistern.
One day he is sitting up by an aging oak, watching the shadows of the clouds race in sneaking black packs across the valley floor, when the glowing weasel appears in front of him. Kastananga glares at it, and then spits on the ground next to him.
‘Go away,’ he says.
The weasel sits down and opens its mouth. It coughs, once, and then twice, and then a little golden leaf flops out onto the ground, bone-dry and blinding.
It looks up at Kastananga. The old man looks away.
The weasel sits down and clamps its hands on the leaf and begins to chew. As it does the leaf comes apart in splinters and some of them drive into its gums. It bleeds little drops of glittering blood and tiny white flowers sprout where they fall.
‘You have a grandchild,’ it says.
‘I have no interest in what you have to say.’ says Kastananga.
‘Don’t be unkind. You can be remarkably unkind. That is the problem with you who believe too hard in something. You think you know what everyone else is thinking, and so you’re not interested in what they actually are.’
‘I’ve no interest in locking horns with ghost from the jungle.’
‘I’m not a ghost, old man.’
‘Were you not responsible for destroying my village?’
The weasel looks up at him, and then away, and hangs its head.
‘I am ashamed of that.’
‘Seventy-four people died. Seventy-four of my people.’ Kastananga gets up. ‘Your shame is not enough.’
‘Do you not know how it is your kind and mine live together in this world? There are rules. There are rules and obligations, and that you don’t believe in them doesn’t make them any less true.’
‘We lived a thousand years in the old country without your rules.’
The weasel peers at him.
‘And yet,’ it says, ‘Here you are, in my country. Talking to me.’
Memories of when she lived with Adirit steal up on her when she is at her most still - an instant before she falls asleep, or when the clay is slipping through her fingers, glossy and moist, in a quick and never-ending swirl. They come in flashes and snippets - his hand on her wrist, or else the two of them lying in the high heather with nothing but cool leaves and each other’s skin between them. Once she hated these moments, but now she welcomes them, for time has weathered her pain from breath-stealing sharpness to brief blooming ache.
Her life is now the porcelain. She heads out with her basket early in the morning - before Adirit and the child are awake, before the sun has even risen, before the skittering fireflies and forest-gods have had time to disperse. By the time she returns she is hungry. Down by the river there are stalls with people grilling fish and she sits by the water and eats and listen to old folk gathered there, monotheists and polytheists alike. They ask her how she is and she tells them the truth, which is never very long, and then they resume their gossiping. Here she learns that there are more traders coming to the village and that Adirit looks lonely and that the child is growing up and looks more like her every day. She listens to all this and smiles a little and says nothing.
After this she returns and trades the bone she collected in the morning for some fresh porcelain from one or the other of the makers in town. Then she returns and sits by her wheel. By the time she gets up again her back is stiff and her feet are covered in hardening daubs of porcelain but always, always, what she has made is flawless. Often she stares at it while the sun sets and the mosquitos gather and it is only after they begin to bite her that she takes it and leaves it with the other finished pieces to dry before firing.
For dinner she eats only some dried fruit and nuts that Adirit sometimes leaves by her door or, if he is angry or hurt again - that is to say, if he remembers how things are - that she has gathered herself. She sits in the corner of her hut with a single lamp and in the tiny tremulous island of golden red light she uses a brush no bigger than the width of her nail to paint the side of the pieces that have already been fired. She uses only yellow and red and vivid emerald green and because there is darkness all about her, and half the pot is lost in shadows, she can only work on a small bit of it at a time.
By the time she is finished almost everyone else in the village is asleep. Then she heads out and walks quickly in the darkness to Adirit’s house. Every now and then, if she is lucky, both he and their daughter are awake, and playing in the light of the ten or so lamps Adirit has hung from the roof.
On nights like this she watches them - the little girl who looks like her riding around on her father’s feet, or learning to draw, or just curled up in his lap, asleep. But never for very long. It will not do for either of them to see her watching, or for her to get used to seeing then.
Kastananga tries ignoring the weasel, and then insulting him, and then chanting tracts from the third Avatar’s book, but it will not leave him alone. It appears when he is sitting in the dark of his hut. It appears when he is on his walks. It appears when he is meditating, and though his eyes are closed, he smells it, sweet like lavender, sharp like alcohol.
‘Why do you follow me around?’ he asks it one day.
They are down in the valley, by the river. Kastananga is soaking his feet in the cold water.
‘Because you will die soon, and I wish to be here for that.’
‘You will not have my soul. My soul belongs to Goddess, and I’ve lived a good life.’
‘Have you?’ says the weasel. ‘Are you certain?’
‘I am certain,’ says Kastananga.
‘And yet here you are, alone, with none but your worst enemy for company.’
‘That is precisely because I led a good life, and did not give you and yours what you wanted.’
‘How do you know what we wanted?’
‘I saw you looking at Maphna’s belly. I saw the unbelievers sacrificing their child to you in the dark of the forest. I know what it is you wanted of us, but you have no right to it. And for that, you killed everyone I love.’ Kastananga stares into the water. ‘I lived a good life, and for that I suffered. So what?’
The weasel licks its paw.
‘The child looks like you. The woman now knows that your son was the firstborn, and that you did not give him to the forest. She knows now that her child will be taken in his stead, and she has turned her back on her family. You son needs you.’
Kastananga stares and the thing holds his gaze. Then, suddenly, he lunges at it, arms outstretched, half expecting his fingers to slip right through. But they make contact with the weasel’s body and it is a body like any other of its kind, warm and furry and squirming furiously. Kastananga holds on tight. The weasel’s skin goes scorching hot and Kastananga feels his skin burn, but he squeezes and shoves the thing into the river. The water seethes and hot steam gushes over his face but he keeps the weasel under the surface until it stops moving. He holds it there, wheezing and coughing, until the water stops boiling and he can see down to limp little body huddled by his feet, mouth open, eyes narrowed, the light in its flesh slowly dimming.
Kastananga pulls his arms out of the water. His hands are gone. Where they were are two painless stumps, grey-skinned and riven with flowing cracks like little rivers of lava. He leans against the bank and waits for his breath to come back, wondering how he will get by now. But his breath does not come back. It slips further and further away, until he falls over, face red, neck taut, gasping. A little while after that his breath begins to fade. A little while after that, it stops altogether.
Adirit does not know where he is going until he looks up and he realizes he is standing outside Osayanu’s house, and that she is sitting on her porch, hands smeared in clay, staring at him.
‘Where is she?’ says Osayanu.
Adirit wipes his eyes.
‘I see.’ She gets up and wipes her hands on the tabard she is wearing, and then takes it off. ‘Come.’
They walk through the house and she discards the tabard and keeps walking out the back. He follows her through the workshop where half finished pots and bowls and thin-necked vases stand in serried ranks, glossy and curvaceous. Eventually they come to a rounded rock protruding from the ground by the river’s edge. She sits, and pats the space next to her. He does not ask her how she knew what he wanted. He is used the fact that she just does. He sits down and breaths deep and fills his nose with her smell. Then he cries.
‘My father is dead,’ he says.
Osayanu looks at the river, and says nothing.
‘They found him downriver. He’d drowned, and his hands were missing. Something had eaten his hands.’
She touches him, briefly, on the leg.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says.
Adirit nods, and wipes away his tears. They sit quietly for a little while longer. Then:
‘Won’t you come home?’
Osayanu shakes her head.
‘You can come home now. There’s no reason for you not to.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘My father was the firstborn. Now he is dead. The forest has what it needs.’
‘That isn’t how it works, my love.’
‘Then I’ll give myself to the forest.’
‘You’re too old.’
‘Just come home. Please.’
She shakes her head again.
‘I can’t. I can’t live with a goddess. I can’t grow to love a child that isn’t mine to love.’
‘She is your child. She is your child, and mine. You have a responsibility.’
‘Yes,’ says Osayanu. ‘And my responsibility is to give her up to the forest.’
Adirit gets up and walks down to the river’s edge, and looks back the way he came. Not so far away are the soaring sharp-tipped curves of the giant ribs, clean and shining in the noontime sun.
‘Do you know the story of those ribs?’ says Osayanu.
‘No,’ he says. ‘I thought no one did.’
‘No one really does. There are lots of stories. But there’s one I think is true.’
‘I’m no good with telling stories.’
‘Tell me anyway.’
Osayanu takes a strand of her hair in her hands and as she speaks she picks at it, eyes-crossed, as if the whole tale was carved into its side.
‘The beasts came from the sea. The sea had become too crowded and they needed a new place to live, and so they came out onto land. When they did the gods told them that they were coming to a new place, and so they should bring a gift. It’s rude not to bring a gift when you go to a new place, they said. But the beasts didn’t listen. They were bigger than the gods and, they thought, mightier, and so they wandered up and did as they pleased. But they had no luck, and wherever they went was disaster. Though they were huge, in some places many smaller creatures came together and killed them. In other places they fell into crevasses, or were attacked by demons. Eventually there was only one of them, and she thought, my ancestors are from the sea. I’ll go back there, because it is my home. But when she went into the sea, she realized that the sea had forgotten them. That to the sea, she was someone new, and she had not come bearing a gift. So she drowned, and the sea returned her to where it thought she belonged - the land. And there her body lies, of neither the sea nor the earth, and lost to both.’
Adirit smiles when she is done.
‘There is no Goddess but Goddess,’ he says. ‘And we are her people.’
Osayanu reaches down and scoops up some earth.
‘You belong to your Goddess my love, but I belong to this,’ she says. ‘And so does our child.’
The old woman chooses the cove because it is secluded and quiet and the path there winds up and over a precipitous ridge. Not many people will come here, she thinks, and when they do she will smell them once they reach the top of the climb, for even in winter, it will make them sweat. The sea here is still all year around on account of the outcroppings of rock a few minute’s swim from the sand. Even on stormy days they buffer her little bay from the waves and she can swim in slow circles, as she likes to do, and see all the way to the pale golden world of crabs and octopuses and flitting silvery fish below.
She spends the first few days marking her territory. Then she goes into the forest and chops down some trees. At first it is difficult for her to hew the wood and split it and shape it into usable planks because she has not done it alone for so long. Sometimes, in the middle of the afternoon, when the heat is at its most smothering, she loses track of what she is doing and reverts. At moments like this the axe goes flying out of her hands and off into the undergrowth and it is only when she tries to go to pick it up that she realizes that she can only lope along on all fours.
By late summer the cabin is half done and her larder is beginning to fill. She is sitting by the water, soaking her old feet in it, when she smells people up on the ridge. At first she thinks of hiding, but then she realizes the smells are familiar. It does not take her long to realize who they are. Eventually a young woman and an older man emerge from the undergrowth onto the beach. The man is bearded and silver-haired and on his back he is carrying an even older man, a man so skinny that he looks barely more than organs wrapped parchment. Still, he is swigging wantonly from a bottle of orange wine that the old woman can smell even where she is sitting.
‘Put me down, little lord,’ says the old man. ‘This ain’t what a lord should be doing. I told you. I told you.’
‘Stop calling me that,’ says the other man. ‘No one believes in that crap anymore.’
‘Blessed be the Mother,’ says the old man. ‘Stop your blaspheming. Your balls’ll fall off in the night.’
The young woman sees the old woman and comes over. She is long-limbed and long-haired and smiles a smile that could obliterate shadows. It does not take the old woman long to realize why she is so excited. It does not take her long to realize that the young woman, one day, will be just like her.
‘Yah, grandma,’ says the young girl. ‘I am sorry, I did not realize anyone lived here.’
‘Nowt wrong with it,’ says the old woman. ‘Who’re you?’
‘I am Adisayan. That is my father, Adirit, and that old fart is his flag-bearer, Paragareen the Drunken.’
‘I hear you, little lady!’ shouts Paragareen, stomping through the surf. ‘I hear the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea!’
‘And the clink of a bottle of wine from a hundred miles!’
‘Aye!’ Paragareen takes a swig. ‘Who’s that sexy lass, then?’
‘You’ll pardon him,’ says Adisayan.
The old woman shrugs.
‘I’ve pardoned worse,’ she says, and gets to her feet.
‘May we stay a while? We will not disturb you.’
‘Stay, stay. Disturb.’
‘Is that your house?’
‘It is. Will you take water?’
The girl nods.
‘I will. We will.’
She follows the old woman without asking her father for permission and inside she marvels at the apples and clusters of grapes, each fat and golden and dripping with moisture, that grow from the ceiling of the store room. Then she inspects the grandfather clock in the corner and the carpet with its little scurrying drawings and the old woman is astonished that she does not ask any questions. But when the woman goes to the well and comes back with two huge buckets of water the girl takes one and says, ‘Who else lives here?’
‘Oh, my man did. For a while. But he is gone now.’
‘He must have been very powerful.’
The old woman nods, and sniffs.
‘Aye,’ she says. ‘Not the most, but enough.’
When they head back out Adirit and Paragareen are sprawled on the sand watching a sliver of the horizon between two of the water-rocks, a view fading from the azure of the sea to the pale blue of the horizon and then finally to the reddening gold of the slowly subsiding sun. They take the water and drink and the old woman sits with them for a while.
‘When I die,’ says Paragareen, ‘I want you to burn me and scatter my ashes here.’
‘Will that suit you, grandmother?’ says Adirit.
‘Aye. It’ll suit the crabs and fish and what suits them suits me.’
‘I thought I would be a warrior,’ says Paragareen.
‘You were,’ says Adirit.
‘I thought I’d be a hero.’
‘I warn’t no hero, little lord. I was a survivor. You can tell what person’ll be when they’re young and that’s what me gramma said I’d be. A survivor.’
‘He gets like this when he’s drunk,’ whispers Adisayan to the old woman.
The old woman chuckles.
‘What’ll be I be, then, Paragareen?’ asks Adisayan.
Paragareen gives the old woman a long look, and swigs from his bottle.
‘I reckon you’ll be whatever you want to be, little lady. Isn’t that right, m’lord?’
Adirit smiles, and nods.
‘That’s right, Piglet,’ he says, wrapping his arms around the girl. ‘When you grow up, you can be whatever you want to be.’
The old woman smiles.
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