"A Sweet Lie."
The family members have tears in their eyes when they welcome Valerna back to the inn from her long journey. "Thank you so much for coming." She understands the situation immediately. The time for departure is drawing near. Too soon, too soon. But still, she knows, this day would have come sometime, and not in the distant future.
"I might never see you again," she said to her with a poignant smile when she left on this journey, her smiling face almost transparent in its whiteness, so fragile—and therefore indescribably beautiful—as she lay in bed.
"May I see Hanna now?" She asks. "She hasn't opened her eyes since last night," he warns Valerna. You can tell from the slight movement of her chest that she is clinging to a frail thread of life, but it could snap at any moment. The innkeeper gives her a tiny nod and says, "I don't think she'll know who you are, though." "It's such a shame. I know you made a special point to come here for her..."
Another tear glides down the wife's cheek. "Never mind, it's fine." Valerna says. She has been present at innumerable deaths, and her experience has taught her much. Loss takes away the power of speech first of all. Then the ability to see. What remains alive to the very end, however, is the power to hear. Even though the person has lost consciousness, it is by no means unusual for the voices of the family to bring forth smiles or tears. Valerna puts her arm around the woman's shoulder and says, "I have lots of travel stories to tell her. I've been looking forward to this my whole time on the road."
Instead of smiling, the woman releases another large tear and nods to Valerna, "And Hanna was so looking forward to hearing your stories." Her bewailings almost drown out her words.
The innkeeper says, "I wish I could urge you to rest up from your travels before you see her, but..."
Valerna interrupts his apologies, "Of course I'll see her right away." There is very little time left. Hanna, the only daughter of the innkeeper and his wife, will feasibly breathe her last before the sun comes up. Valerna lowers her pack to the floor and noiselessly opens the door to Hanna's room. Hanna was weak from birth. Far from enjoying the opportunity to travel, she infrequently left the town or even the neighborhood where she was born and raised. This child will probably not live to adulthood; the doctor told her parents. This tiny girl, with extraordinarily beautiful doll-like features, the elders had dealt an all-too-sad destiny.
That they had allowed her to be born the only daughter of the keepers of a small inn by the Skeletal highway was perhaps one meager act of penance for such iniquity. Hanna was unable to go anywhere, but the guests who sojourned at her parents' inn would tell her stories of the countries and towns and landscapes and people that she would never know. Whenever new guests arrived at the inn, Hanna would ask them, "Where are you from?" "Where are you going?" "Can you tell me a story?"
She would sit and listen to their tales with sparkling eyes, urging them on to new episodes with "And then? And then?" When they left the inn, she would press them, "Please come back, and tell me lots and lots of stories about faraway countries!" She would stand there waving until the person disappeared far down the horizon, give one forlorn sigh, and go back to bed. Hanna is sound asleep.
No one else is in the room, perhaps indicating that she has long since passed the stage when the doctors can do anything for her. Valerna sits down in the chair next to the bed and says with a simper. "Hello, Hanna, I'm back." She does not respond. Her little chest, still without the swelling of a grown woman, rises and falls almost imperceptibly. "I went far across the ocean this time," she tells her. "The ocean on the side where the sun comes up. I took a boat from the harbor way way way far beyond the mountains you can see from this window, and I was on the sea from the time the moon was perfectly round till it got smaller and smaller then bigger and bigger until it was full again. There was nothing but ocean as far as the eye could see. Just the sea and the sky. Can you imagine it, Hanna? You've never seen the ocean, but I'm sure people have told you about it. It's like a huge, big endless puddle."
Valerna chuckles to herself, and it appears to her that Hanna's pale white cheek moves slightly. She can hear her. Even if she cannot speak or see, her ears are still alive. Believing and hoping this to be accurate, Valerna proceeds with the story of her travels. She utters no words of farewell. As always with Hanna, Valerna smiles with a remarkable gentleness she has never shown to anyone else, and she goes on telling her tales with a bright voice, sometimes even accompanying her story with exaggerated gestures.
She tells her about the blue ocean.
She tells her about the blue sky.
She says nothing about the violent sea battle that stained the ocean red.
She never tells her about those things. Hanna was still a tiny girl when
Valerna first visited the inn. When she questioned her, "Where are you from?" and "Will you tell me some stories?" with her childish intonation and faultless smile, Valerna felt a soft glow in her chest.
At the time, she was returning from a War. More precisely, she had ended one battle and was on her way to the next. Her life consisted of migrating from one battlefield to another, and nothing about that has changed to this day. She has taken the lives of countless enemy troops and witnessed the deaths of numerous comrades on the battlefield. Furthermore, the only thing separating enemies from comrades is the slightest stroke of fortune. Had the gears of destiny turned in a slightly different way, her enemies would have been confidants and her comrade's enemies; this is the fate of the mercenary. She was spiritually worn down back then and feeling unbearably lonely. Valerna had no fear of death as a possessor of eternal life, explicitly why each of the soldiers' faces was distorted in horror. And why each face of a man who died in anguish was seared enduringly into her brain. Ordinarily, she would spend nights on the road drinking.
Immersing herself in an alcoholic stupor—or pretending to. She was trying to make herself misremember the unforgettable. When, however, she saw Hanna's smile and requested her for stories about her long journey, she felt a far warmer and more profound succor than she could even obtain from liquor. Valerna told her many things...
About the beautiful flower she discovered on the battlefield.
About the bewitching beauty of the mist filling the jungle the night before the final battle.
About the marvelous taste of the spring water in a ravine where she and her men had fled after losing the battle.
About a vast, bottomless blue sky she saw after a battle.
She never told her anything sad. Valerna kept her mouth shut about the human ugliness and imbecility she witnessed endlessly on the battlefield. The giant concealed her profession as a mercenary for her, kept hushed concerning her reasons for traveling constantly, and conversed only of pretty and sweet and lovely things.
Valerna sees now that she told Hanna only beautiful stories of the road like this, not so much out of concern for her purity but for her own sake. Staying in the inn where Hanna waited to see her turned out to be one of Valerna's small comforts in life. Telling her about the memories she brought back from her journeys, she felt some degree of emancipation, however slight. Five years, ten years, her friendship with the girl endured. Little by little, she neared adulthood, which meant that, as the doctors had predicted, each day brought her that much closer to death. And now, Valerna ends the last travel story she will share with her.
She can never see her again, can never tell her stories again. Before dawn, when the somberness of night is at its deepest, long pauses enter into Hanna's breathing. The frail thread of her life is about to snap as Valerna, and her parents watch over her. The tiny light that has lodged in this giant's breast will be extinguished. Her solitary travels will begin again tomorrow—her long, long journeys without end. "You'll be leaving on travels of your own soon, Hanna." Valerna tells her tenderly.
"You'll be leaving for a world that no one knows, a world that has never entered into any of the stories you have heard so far. Finally, you will be able to leave your bed and walk anywhere you want to go. You'll be free." She wants her to know that death is not sorrow but joy mixed with tears.
"It's your turn now. Be sure and tell everyone about the memories of your journey." Her parents will make that same journey someday. And someday, Hanna will be able to meet all the guests she has known at the inn, far beyond the sky.
I, however, can never go there.
I can never escape this world.
I can never see you again.
"This is not goodbye. It's just the start of your journey."
She speaks those closing words to her. "We'll meet again."
A final lie to her.
Hanna makes her departure. Her face is transfused with a tranquil smile as if she has just said, "See you soon." Her eyes will never open again. A solitary tear glides slowly down her cheek. Come morning, Valerna will be gone, left to meander onward alone down this lonesome road that is her eternal odyssey...
Alone in a crowd of hardy men, nursing her drink in the far corner of this Hamlet's only tavern: Valerna. A single man strides in through the bar door. Massively built, he dons the garb of a warrior. His soiled uniform bespeaks a distant journey. Lassitude marks his face, but his eyes wear a penetrating gleam—the look of a contentious man on active duty. The tavern's din hushes immediately. Every inebriated eye in the place fastens on the soldier with reverence and gratitude.
The prolonged war with the adjacent country has ended at last. And the men who battled on the front lines are returning to their homes. So it is with this military man. The soldier takes a seat at the table next to Valerna, and downs a slug of liquor with the forcefulness of a hard drinker—a man who drinks to kill his pain.
Two cups, three, four...
Another customer approaches him, bottle in hand, wearing an ingratiating grin—a typical crafty town punk. "Let me offer you a drink," wheedles the man, "as a token of gratitude for your heroic efforts on behalf of the fatherland."
The soldier unsmilingly allows the man to fill his cup."How was it at the front? I'm sure you performed many valiant deeds on the battlefield." The soldier empties his cup in silence.
The punk refills the cup and adopts an ever more sniveling grin."Now that we're friends, how about telling me some war tales? You've got such big, strong arms, how many enemy soldiers did you ki—"
Without a word, the soldier hurls the contents of his cup into the man's face. The punk flies into a rage and brandishes his knife. No sooner does it leave its sheath than Valerna's fist sends it flying through the air.
Faced with the powerful united front of the giant and the soldier, the criminal runs out, muttering profanities. The two warriors watch him go, then share a faint smile. Valerna doesn't have to converse with the soldier to know that he lives in heartfelt melancholy. For his part, the veteran (having cheated death any number of times) is cognizant of the shadow that lurks in Valerna's expression.
The tavern's racket returns. The giant and the soldier pour each other drinks. "I've got a wife and daughter I haven't seen since I shipped out," states the soldier. "It's been three long years."
He lets himself smile shyly now for the first time as he takes a drawing of his wife and daughter from his pocket and shows it to Valerna: the wife is a woman of dewy freshness, the daughter still very young. "They're the reason I survived. The thought of going home to them alive was all that sustained me in battle."
"Is your home far from here?"
"No, my village is just over the next pass. I'm sure they've heard the news that the war is over and can hardly wait to have me home." He could get there tonight if he wanted to badly enough. It was that close. "But..." the soldier downs a mouthful of alcohol and grunts. "I'm afraid."
"Afraid? Of what?"
"I want to see my wife and daughter, but I'm afraid to have them see me.
I don't know how many men I've killed these past three years. I had no choice. I had to do it to stay alive. If I was going to get back to my family, I had no choice but to kill one enemy soldier after another, and every one of those men had families they had left at home." It was the code of war, the soldier's condition. To stay alive in battle, you had to go on exterminating men before they could butcher you.
"I had no time to think about such things at the front. I was too busy trying to survive. I see it now, though—now that the war is over. Three years of sin are carved into my face. This is the face of a killer. I don't want to show this face to my wife and daughter." The soldier pulls out a leather pouch from which he withdraws a small stone. He tells Valerna it is a rough gemstone, something he recovered after he left for the battlefield.
"A gemstone?" She asks, unconvinced. The stone on the table is a dull black without a hint of the sparkle a gem should have.
"It glistened when I first found it. I was sure my daughter would love it when I brought it home to her. Gradually, though, the stone lost its gleam and turned cloudy."
"Every time I killed an enemy soldier, something like the stain of his blood would rise to the surface of the stone. As you can see, it's almost solid black now after three years. The stone is stained by the sins I've committed. I call it my 'sin stone.'"
"You don't have to blame yourself so harshly," says Valerna, "You had to do it to stay alive."
"I know that." replies the soldier. "I know that. But still... just like me, the men I killed had villages to go home to, and families waiting for them there..."
The veteran then says to Valerna, "You, too, I suppose. You must have a family."
She gives her head a little shake. "Not me." she says. "No family."
"A home village at least?"
"I don't have any place to go home to."
"Eternal traveler, eh?"
"Uh-huh. That's me."
The soldier chuckles softly and gives the giant a grouchy smirk. It is hard to tell how fully he believes what Valerna has told him. He slips the "sin stone" into the leather pouch and says, "You know what I think? If the stone turned darker every time I took a life, it ought to get some of its gleam back every time I save a life."
Instead of answering, Valerna consumes the last drops of liquor from her cup and rises from the table. The soldier persists in his chair and Valerna, staring down at him, bequeaths him these words of counsel: "If you have a place you can go home to, you should go to it. Just go, no matter how much guilt you may have weighing you down. I'm sure your wife and daughter will understand. You're no criminal. You're a hero: you fought your heart out to stay alive."
"I'm glad I met you." says the soldier. "I needed to hear that."He holds out his right hand to the giant, who grasps it in return. "I hope your travels go well." declares the veteran.
"And your travels will soon be over," says Valerna with a smile, She started for the door. Just then the punk charges at the giant from behind, wielding a caster gun.
"Watch out!" roars the soldier and rushes after Valerna.
As she whirls around, the punk takes aim and screams, "You can't treat me like that, you bitch!" The soldier slides between the two and takes an explosive bullet to the gut.
And so, as he so desperately wished to do, the soldier has preserved someone's life. Ironically, it is for the life of Valerna, a woman who can never age, that the soldier has traded his one and only life.
Sprawled on the floor, nearly inert, the veteran thrusts the leather pouch into Valerna's hand. "Look at my 'sin stone,' will you? Maybe...maybe," he remarks, chuckling weakly, "some of its shine has come back." Blood spurts from his mouth, strangling the laugh.
She looks inside the bag and says, "It's sparkling now. It's clean."
"It is?" gasps the soldier. "Good. My daughter will be so glad..."
He smiles with delight and holds his hand out for the pouch.
Considerately, Valerna lays the sack on the palm of his hand and folds the man's fingers over it. The soldier draws his last breath, and the pouch falls to the floor. The dead man's face wears a serene expression. The stone, however—the man's 'sin stone,' which has rolled from the open pouch—is as black as ever.
She knows that it is futile. But the giant can't suppress the impulse that wells up from within her flesh.
She needs to do it—to hurl her entire body against the bars. It does no good at all. Her flesh ricochets off the thick iron bars. "Number 8! What the hell are you doing?" The guard's indignant bellow reverberates down the corridor. The prisoners are never beckoned by name, only by the numbers on their cells. Valerna is Number 8.
She says nothing. Instead, she slams her shoulder against the bars. The massive barriers of iron never nudged. All they do is leave a dull, heavy ache in Valerna's superbly conditioned muscles and bones. Instead of screeching again, the guard blows his whistle, and the other sentry comes racing from their station.
"Number 8! What's it going to take to make you understand?"
"Do you want to be thrown into the punishment cell?"
"Don't look at me like that. Start resisting, and all it will get you is a longer time in here!"
Sitting on the floor of her cell, legs splayed out, Valerna ignores the guards' commands. She has been to the punishment room any number of times. And knows she has been branded a "highly rebellious prisoner." But she can't help herself. Something is squirming deep down inside her. Some hot sensation trapped inside there is seething and writhing.
"Some war hero you turned out to be!" says one guard. "You can't do shit in here. What's the matter, girl? Can't do anything without an enemy staring you in the face?" The guard next to him taunts Valerna with hilarity. "Too bad for you, buddy, no enemies in here? Nobody from your side, either. We've got you locked up all by yourself." After the guards leave, she curls up on the floor, hugging her knees, eyes clamped tight.
The guard was right. I thought I was used to living alone, in battle, on the road. But the desolation here in prison is more intense than any I've ever experienced before. And more frightening. Walls on three sides, and beyond the bars nothing but another wall enclosing the narrow corridor. This dungeon was built to restrict prisoners from seeing each other or even to sense each others' presence.
The absolute lack of a change in the view deadens the sense of time as well. Valerna has no idea how many days have passed since she was thrown in here. Time flows on; that much is certain. But with nowhere to go, it simply stagnates inside. The actual pang that prison administers on a person is neither to rob them of their freedom nor to force them to experience solitude. The real punishment is having to live where nothing ever moves in your field of view and time never flows. The water in a river will never putrefy but fasten it in a jar, and that is what it will eventually do. The same is true here.
Maybe parts of her deep down in this body and mind are already beginning to give off a putrid stench. Because she is aware of this, Valerna drags herself up from the floor again and slams herself into the bars over and over. There is not the remotest prospect that doing so will break that barrier. Nor does she thinks she can manage to escape this way. Still, the giant does it repeatedly.
She can't help herself. She has to do it again and again. In an instant, before the body smashes into that bars—for that split second—a puff of wind strikes those deprived cheeks. The unmoving air shifted, if only for that fleeting interval. The tactility of the wind is the one thing that gives Valerna a fragmentary impression of the flow of time. The guards come galloping, face grim with indignation.
Now I can see human shapes where before, there was only a wall. That alone is enough to lift my spirits. Don't these guards realize that?
"All right, Number 8, it's the punishment room for you! Let's see if three days in there will cool your head!" Valerna's lips loaf into a smile when she apprehends the order.
Don't these guys get it? Now my scenery will change. Time will start flowing again. I'm thankful for that. Valerna laughs aloud. The guards bind her hand behind her, put chains around the ankles, and start for the discipline room.
"What the hell are you laughing at, Number 8?"
"Yeah, stop it! We'll punish you even more!"
But the giant keeps on laughing, laughing at the top of her lungs.
If I fill my lungs with all new air, will the odor disappear? Or have my body and mind decayed so much already that I can't get relieved of the stench so easily? How long will they keep me locked up in here? When can I get out of here? Will it be too late by then? When everything has decomposed away, will I become less a "she" than an "it," the way our troops count enemy corpses?
Valerna can scarcely breathe. It is as if the air is being squeezed out of her chest, and the excruciating discomfort of it is drawing her back from the world of dreams to reality.
Was I once in a prison in the far, far distant past?
She half-wanders in the space between fiction and actuality? She has had this dream any number of times—this nightmare, it might even be called. After waking, she ventured to recall it, but nothing stays in her memory. One thing is certain, however: the appearance of the jail and of the guards in the dream if always the same.
Could this be something I have experienced? If so, when could it have been? There is no way for her to tell.
Once she is wholly conscious, those interrogations she asked between dream and reality are, themselves, erased from memory. Valerna springs up with a shriek, her breath labored, the back of her hand scoured the streams of sweat from her brow, and all that is left is the shuddering horror. It is perpetually like this.
She mutters to herself as she endeavors to reclaim whatever retention is left in a secluded corner of her brain. "What kind of past life could I have lived through?"
It dawned on her then that the prison perpetually endured, whether it be of walls of heartless stone or the winding road, mattered little. In the end, Valerna was preordained to be a captive, and the shell that incarcerated her, hardly of note.
The boy has lost his smile, though he denies it. "Don't be silly, Val. Look! I'm smiling, aren't I?" He draws his cheeks back and lets his teeth show white against his brown skin. "If this isn't a smile, what is?"Valerna nods but says nothing. She pats the boy on the shoulder as if to say, "Sure, sure."
"Come on, really look at me. I'm smiling, right?"
"Right. You're smiling."
"Anyway, forget about me. Hurry, let's go."
The boy has a sweet, open nature. He made instant friends with the gentle giant while the other townspeople kept their distance from the "strange traveler." Not that the boy chose the much older Valerna as a playmate. He leads her to the tavern, which still hasn't opened its doors for the day. "I hate to ask you to do this, but... would you, please?"The boy's voice seems to have carried inside. A man in the tavern peals off a drunken howl. He sounds especially bad today. Valerna fights back a sigh and enters the tavern. The man on the barstool is the boy's father, drunk again at midday. The boy is here to take him home. He looks at his father with sad eyes. Valerna puts her arm around the father's shoulder and discreetly moves the whiskey bottle away from him.
"Let's call it a day," she states. The man shoves Valerna's arm off and slumps down on the bar.
"I hate guys like you," he says.
"Yes, I know," retorts Valerna. "It's time to go home, though. You've had enough."
"You heard me, Val. Drifter! I hate you guys. I really really hate you guys."
The father is always like this when he is drunk—hurling curses at all "floaters," picking quarrels with any person dressed for the road, and finally slumping to the ground to sleep it off. His son is too small to drag him home. With a sigh, Valerna finds herself again today supporting the drunken father's weight to keep him from toppling off the barstool.
The boy stares at his father, his eyes a hodgepodge of despondency, rage, and pity. When his eyes meet Valerna's he shrugs as if to say, "Sorry to keep putting you through this."
But she is used to it. She has seen the father dead-drunk almost every day for the past year, ever since the boy and his father were left to live alone. "Oh, well ..." the boy says with a tense smile as if trying to capitulate himself to the situation.
Supporting the father's weight on his shoulder, Valerna gives the boy a smile and says, "Yes, but you don't go out and get drunk the way he does."
"Ahem," the boy says, puffing his chest out. "Sometimes kids are tougher than grownups."
She broadens her smile to signal to him, "You're right."
"Of course I'm right," the boy all but says with the smile he gives back.
It is the only kind of a smile the ten-year-old has managed to produce in the past year: so bitter it would numb your tongue if you could taste it. The boy's mother—the father's wife—left home a year ago. She fell in love with a traveling salesman and abandoned the boy and his father. "Mama was bored," the boy says matter-of-factly, looking back on his mother's infidelity. "She got tired of doing the same thing every day. That's when she met him."
At the tender age of ten, the boy has learned that specific stories have to be told with that lackadaisical tone. The father was born and raised in this small town and worked in the borough office. He was not exceptionally gifted, but it was not a job that called for talent or quick repartee. All he had to do was heed orders with diligence and submissiveness, and he did precisely that, year after year, without making waves."He called our life 'peaceful,' but Mama didn't think so. She said it was just 'ordinary' and no fun."
She was attracted to the life of the crafty traveling salesman. It was risky and exciting, like walking on top of a prison wall: one misstep and you could end up inside. "Papa told Mama that the man was deceiving her, that all he wanted was her money, but he couldn't get through to her. Mama couldn't even think about us back then." With utter detachment, as though holding it at arm's length, the boy reflects on the tragedy that struck his family.
"I've heard the saying 'Love is blind.' It really is!" he says with a shrug and a sardonic laugh like a full-fledged adult. Valerna says nothing. "Children should act their age" is another saying, but probably not one that could be spoken with a great deal of significance to a boy who had lost his mother's love. And even if Valerna presumed to chide him, the boy would likely pass it off with a strained smile and say, "Sometimes kids are tougher than grownups."
The boy's father, however, shows his resentment when his son uses grownup expressions. "The little twerp's lost all his boyishness. He despises me now. He thinks I'm pitiful. Deep down he's laughing at me for letting my wife be taken by another man, damn him." It bothers him, especially when he is intoxicated. His annoyance far outweighs his paternal affection for his son. Sometimes he even strikes the boy across the face or tries to. When he is drunk, the boy can effortlessly elude his slaps, and he ends up sprawled on the floor.
Even as he is drowning in a sea of whiskey, he can sometimes turn startlingly profound and start asking questions. "Say, Val, you've been traveling for a long time, right?"
"Do you enjoy it all that much? Going to strange towns; meeting strangers can't be all that... Is it so wonderful that you'd be willing to abandon the life you're living now for it?"
He asks the same thing over and over. Valerna's answer is always the same. "Sometimes it's enjoyable, and sometimes it's not." He doesn't know what else to say.
"You know, Val, I've never set foot outside this town. Same with my father and my grandfather and my great-grandfather, and the one before him. We've always been born here and died here. My wife's family, too. They've had roots in this town for generations. So why did she do it? Why did she leave? What did she need so badly that she had to leave me and her own son?" The giant merely beams without acknowledging. The satisfy to such a query cannot be conveyed in words. Try though she might to explain it, the reason certain people are drawn irresistibly to the road can never be understood by people who don't have that inclination. The father is simply one of those people who can never concede. Faltering to elicit a response from Valerna, the father sinks again into the depths of intemperance.
"I'm scared, Val," he says. "My son might do it, too. He might go away and leave me here someday. When I hear him talking like a grownup, I get so scared I can't stand it." The boy's mother eventually comes back. The traveling salesman cheated her out of every last bit of her savings, and the moment she was no longer any use to him, he left her. Physically and mentally broken, she has only one place to return to—the home she abandoned. First, she writes a letter from the neighboring town, and when her husband reads it again and again through drink-clouded eyes, he laughs derisively. "Serves her right, the miserable witch." He makes a show of tearing the letter to pieces in front of Valerna, without showing it to his son.
Valerna tells the boy everything and asks him,"What do you want to do? Whatever you decide, I'll help you make it happen."
"Whatever I decide?" the boy asks in return with his typical aloof smile.
"If you want to leave this town, I'll let you have enough money to help you get by for a while," she says. "I can do that much." Valerna's words were utterly deep-felt.
The father has no intention of pardoning his wife. He will almost unquestionably turn her away if she shows up, and probably with a dignified, vindictive simper on his face. Valerna knows, however, that if the mother loses her home and leaves this town once and for all, the father will go back to swilling every day, profaning his wife's infidelity, bewailing his fate, taking out his anger on strangers, and constantly revealing the worst side of himself to his son. The giant's long life on the road has taught her this. Continuous travel means meeting many different people, and the boy's father is assuredly one of the weakest men she has ever met.
"You could join your mother and go to another town. Or if you wanted to go somewhere by yourself, I could find you work." Either would be better, she believes, than for the boy to continue living alone like this with his father. The boy, however, seemingly intrigued, looks straight at Valerna, unveiling his white teeth.
"You've been traveling a long time, haven't you, Val?"
"Sometimes alone, sometimes not..."
The boy gives a slight nod and, with the rueful smile of a grownup, says,
"You don't really get it do you?"
"All this traveling, and you still don't understand the most important thing."His bitter smile takes on its usual caustic edge. Valerna finally learns what the boy is talking about three days later.
A tired-looking woman in tattered garments drags herself from the highway into the bazaar. The townsfolk back away from her, gawking, leaving her in the center of a broad, empty circle. The boy's mother has come back.
The boy breaks his way through the crowd and enters the circle. The mother recognizes her son, and her travel-withered cheeks burst into a smile. The boy takes one step and another step toward his emaciated, smiling mother. He is vacillating at first, but from the third step, he is racing, and he throws his arms around her. He is weeping. He is smiling. For the first time that Valerna has seen, he wears the unclouded grin of a child.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Please forgive me..." his mother pleads in tears. She clasps his head to her bosom and says, smiling through her tears, "You've gotten so big!" Then she adds: "I won't leave you again. I'll stay here forever..." A bustle goes through the crowd. It comes from the direction of the tavern. Now the father pierces through the wall of people and enters the circle. He is drunk. Stumbling, he edges toward his wife and son. He glowers at his wife. The boy stands between them, shielding his mother.
"Papa, stop it!" he barks. "Mama is back. That's enough, isn't it? Forgive her, Papa, please!" His voice is choked with tears. The father says nothing in reply.
Glaring at the two of them, he collapses to his knees, his arms open wide. He enfolds both his wife and son. The shattered family is one again.
"Papa, please, don't hold us so tight! It hurts!" The boy is sobbing and smiling. The mother can only weep. The father cries in exasperation.
Beholding the scene from the back of the crowd, Valerna turns on her heels. "Are you really leaving?" the boy asks again and again as he accompanies her to the edge of town.
"Uh-huh. I want to get across the ocean before winter sets in."
"Papa is already missing you. He says he thought you two could finally become drinking buddies from now on."
"You can drink with him when you grow up."
"When I grow up, huh?" the boy cocks his head, a little abashed, then he mutters,
"I wonder if I'll still be living in this town then."
No one knows that, of course. Maybe some years later, the father will spend his days drunk again because his son has left his hometown and family. And yet—Valerna evokes something he forgot to say to the boy's weak father. "We call it a 'journey' because we have a place to come home to. No matter how many detours or mistakes a person might make, as long as he has a place to come home to, a person can always start again."
"I don't get it," states the boy.
She remembers something else. "Smile for me," She says one last time, placing a hand on the boy's shoulder.
"Like this?" He reveals his white teeth, and his cheeks wrinkle up. It's a good smile. He has finally managed to retrieve the smile of a young boy.
"Now your turn, Val."
The boy analyzes her smile as if allotting it a grade.
"Maybe a little sad," he says. That he is joking makes his words hit home all the more. The boy smiles again as if providing a model for Valerna.
"Okay, then," he says with a wave of the hand,
"I'm going shopping with Papa and Mama today."
The giant smiles and walks away.
Then she hears the boy calling her name one last time.
"Even if we're saying goodbye, I'm not going to cry, Val!
Sometimes kids are tougher than grownups."
She does not look back, her only response a wave of the hand. The boy's expression would probably change if their eyes met. She decides to play it strong to the end. Valerna walks on. After a brief respite, her journey with no place to go home to starts again. A voyage with no place to go home to; the poets call that "wandering."
"That Little Girl."
Everyone in the marketplace despises the little girl. Not yet ten years old, and far from having outgrown the winsome innocence of childhood, she earns only open derision from the grownups who have shops in the market. The reason is simple. She lies about everything.
"Hey, mister, I just saw a burglar go into your house!"
"Look, lady, everything just fell off your shelves!"
"Hey, everybody, did you hear what the traveler said? Bandits are planning to attack this market!"
Even the most innocuous white deceits can be vexatious if repeated often enough, and the shopkeepers have found themselves growing angry. "You better watch out for her, too," the lady greengrocer warns Valerna.
"Nobody here falls for her lies anymore, so she's always on the lookout for newcomers or strangers. Somebody like you would be a perfect target for her." She could be right. Valerna is new to the town. She arrived a few days ago and has just started working in the marketplace today.
"What do her parents do?" Valerna asks while unloading a cartful of vegetables.
The woman frowns and shakes her head with a sigh. "She doesn't have any."
"The mother did, at least. Maybe four or five years ago. She was a healthy young woman who never so much as caught a cold in her life, then one day she collapsed, and that was it for her."
"How about the father?"
She sighs more intensely than before and says, "He left to find a job in the city." The parents used to operate a variety store in the market, though the mother almost single-handedly took care of the actual buying and selling of the many goods they carried. As soon as she died, the shop's fortunes took a plunge until it was eventually taken over by someone else. The father went off to the distant capital city in search of a good-paying job that would enable him to cover their debts. He promised to come back in six months, but he has been gone a whole year now. Letters used to arrive from him on occasion care of his friend the tailor, but those, too, gave out about six months ago.
"I guess you could say it's sad for such a little girl to be waiting around for her father to come home, but still..." The girl now sleeps in the corner of the communal storehouse run by the people of the marketplace. "We all used to talk about taking care of her- to be stand-in parents for her until her father comes back."
This is no surprise to the giant. She knows from her own experience that all the people who work in the marketplace—and not just this plump, kindly woman—are good-hearted and generous, notwithstanding their limited means.
Otherwise, they never would have hired a stranger like herself. "But long before that first six months went by, we were all heartily sick of her. She was a sweet, simple girl while her mother was alive, but this experience has left her kind of twisted. All her sweetness is gone. Of course, we all feel sorry for her, and we take our turns feeding her and dressing her in hand-me-downs, but the way she keeps telling lies to all the grownups, nobody really cares about her anymore. Why can't she see that...?"
"She must be lonely, don't you think?"
With a pained smile, the woman shrugs and says, "That's enough gabbing for one day. Work, work!" and she goes back inside the shop.
Valerna is sorting the vegetables she has unloaded in front of the shop when she hears a little voice behind her.
"Hi, miss, you new here?"
It's the girl.
"You're not from the town, are you?"
"No, I'm not..."
"Are you living upstairs while you work here?"
"For a while, at least. That's what I'm hoping to do."
"I'll tell you a secret, okay?"
It's starting already, "Okay," Valerna answers without interrupting her work.
"There's a ghost in this marketplace. The people here don't tell anybody about it because it's bad for business, but it's really here. I see it all the time."
"Really?!" The giant responds with a feigned wonderment.
She decides to play along with her rather than scold her for lying.
In this endlessly long life of hers, she has encountered any number of children who have lost their parents or been abandoned by them. The sadness and loneliness of children who have been flung into the wide world utterly alone. It is exactly what Valerna feels herself as she continues to saunter throughout the infinite river of time.
"What kind of ghost?"
"A woman. And I know who she is."
"It's the ghost of a mother who lost her child," she says.
Her little girl—her only child—died in an epidemic.
Overcome with grief, the mother chose to die, and now her ghost appears in the market every night, searching for her daughter.
"The poor mother! She killed herself so she could be with her daughter, but she can't find her in the other world, either. So she keeps looking for her and calling out, Where are you? Hurry and come with Mommy to the other world."
The girl tells her story with deadly seriousness.
"Don't you think it's sad?" she asks the giant. She actually has tears in her eyes—which is precisely why Valerna knows she is fibbing.
Even if she had not been warned by the woman, she would know this was a lie based on what she told her about the girl's background.
Valerna meticulously arranges bunches of well-ripened grapes in a display crate and asks the girl, "Why do you think the mother can't find her daughter?"
The girl asks her with a bewildered stare.
"Well," she emphasizes, "the girl is not in the other world, and she's not wandering around in this world, so where is she?"
The giant does not mean this to be a cross-examination.
She feels that someone who lies out of grief can have a far easier time identifying the fiction for what it is. The loneliness of a girl who has lost her mother and been abandoned by her father consists not in telling on little fabrications but in having to keep on lying to survive.
"Hmm, now that you mention it, that's a good point," the girl says, smiling calmly.
"Really—where did the girl go?"
Valerna momentarily considers pointing at the girl as if to say "Right here," but before she can do so, the child continues:
"This is the first time anybody ever asked me that. You're kind of... Different. I wonder...No, you are. You're different," the girl maintains I think we can be friends." Her smile intensifies. Valerna smiles back at her, saying nothing.
Just then, they hear the lady greengrocer coming from the back of the shop, and the girl dashes away. Just before she disappears around the corner into the alleyway, the girl gives the giant a little wave as if to say, "See you soon!"
For the first time, the girl's face with the all-too-grownup speaking style shows a hint of childishness befitting her years. The girl begins coming to see the giant at the shop several times a day when the lady grocer is not around. She tells her one lie after another.
"I baked cookies with my mother last night. I wanted to give you some, but they were so good I ate them all."
"Bandits kidnapped me when I was a little baby, but my father came to save me and beat up all the bandits, so I didn't get killed."
"My house? It's a big, white one at the foot of the mountain. You're new here so you probably don't know it. It's the biggest house in town."
"You don't have a family? You're all alone? Poor Vally! I wish I could share some of my happiness with you!"
All her lies are borne of anguish: tragic, lonely lies she could never tell to marketplace people who know her background. At the end of every chat with Valerna, as she is leaving, the girl holds her finger to her lips and says, "This is just our little secret. Don't tell the lady grocer."
Of course, Valerna says nothing to anyone. If she happens to find herself in a situation where the market people are speaking ill of the girl, she unobtrusively slips away. Deceits and aspersions are funny things. They don't take shape because someone tells them but rather because someone listens to and voices agreement with them. A genuinely solitary individual can never speak ill of anyone. The same can be said regarding dishonesty. Because she has someone to tell her lies to, the girl need not fall into the abyss of true loneliness. To protect her small, pitiful share of mirth, the giant plays the role of her listener, raising no objections. One day when the girl comes to see Valerna, she takes special care not to be noticed by the lady grocer or by the owners of the neighboring shops.
"Tell me, Miss, are you planning to stay here a long, long time?"
"No, I'm not," Valerna replies, proceeding to unload vegetables and fruit.
"You'll be leaving when you save up enough money?"
"But you don't have enough yet?"
"I'm getting there," she says, turning a strained smile on the girl.
This is a white lie of her own. She already has enough money to support herself on the road. Nor has she taken her current live-in job because she requires money so badly. Valerna is here because she has not found a destination she wants to travel to. A journey without a goal is an unending journey.
Wise men say that you need dreams and goals in life. But objectives to accomplish and plans to realize shine as guideposts in life precisely because life is finite. So, then, what should be the purposes and aims of one who has been burdened with a life that has no end? Valerna's journey is not to be hurried. Nor is it one that can be hurried. Perhaps drifting day after day with no destination cannot even be called a journey.
"If I were you," says the girl, "I would get out of this marketplace as soon as I had saved up enough for two or three days of traveling."
Valerna counters to her with a hushed, distressed simper. What would be the look on the girl's face if the lonesome giant were to tell her, "I'm staying here for you"?
I am attaining the meaning of my life for now in presenting you with a listener for your fiction. The moment these words come to mind—words she can never actually speak to her—the girl looks around furtively and says in a near-whisper, "If you want to get out of here soon, I know a good way you can do it."
"A good way...?"
"Sneak into the tailor's and steal his money. There's a little pot in the cabinet at the back of the shop. It's full of money."
"Are you telling me to steal it?"
She looks straight at Valerna without the scantiest show of disbelief in her eyes. In all earnestness, she goes on to clarify, "That tailor deserves to have his place robbed." The money in the pot, she says, is defiled.
"I know this girl, a good friend of mine," she says, "and it's so sad about her. Her mother died, and her father went off to work in the capital, and she's all alone. Her father was supposed to come and get her after six months, but she hasn't heard a thing from him." Yet another lie bore of affliction.
Valerna coolly asks, "Is there some connection between your friend and the tailor?"
"Of course," she says. "A close connection. What's transpiring is the father was sending her money every month the way he was supposed to, to help make her life in the town a little easier. And he kept writing to her. He wanted to tell her he found an excellent job in the city and she should come to live with him right away. He's too busy to come for her, so she should go to him. And he transferred her money for the trip. But none of the letters or the money ever reached the girl.
"And why do you think that is?"
Before the giant can elucidate, the girl says, "The mistake he made was to send the letters and money care of the tailor. He's been keeping all the money for himself."
Valerna glances away from the girl. To prop up one bitter tale, the girl has piled on a still more miserable one—a lie that can hurt another person. This is the most melancholy thing of all.
"The lock on the tailor's back door would be really easy to break," the girl adds, and she gallops away without tarrying for a reply.
The girl comes dashing into the grocery store the following day, shouting for the owner. She says directly to the woman, not to Valerna, "Burglars broke into the tailor's shop last night!"
She says she saw several burglars creeping in late at night after the marketplace emptied out. "My oh my," says the woman with a compelled smile, "that must have been just terrible."
She is obviously not taking the girl thoughtfully. "But it's true, though! I really saw them!"
"Look, little girl, I've had just about all I can take from you. You're such a little liar, it scares me to death to think about you growing up to be a burglar or a con artist or something. I'm busy trying to open my shop now, do you mind? Try in on somebody else."
She is hardly through speaking when someone outside shouts,
"Help! Somebody come!" The tailor is standing in the street, looking appalled and screaming at the top of his lungs.
"Bur—burglars! They took all my mo-mo-money!" The little girl slips away as the tailor comes in.
The marketplace is in an uproar. The girl was not misleading: that much is evident. But, all too accustomed to her dishonesty, people now suggest the possibility of another kind of lie. "Maybe she did it. What do you think?"
And so it begins...
"I think you may be right."
"Talk about play-acting!"
"I wouldn't put it past her."
"Let's go find her. We'll make her tell—even if we have to get a little rough with her."
No one objects to this suggestion. Some run off to the storehouse, and the others start searching the marketplace.
"Can't find her anywhere!"
"The storehouse is empty."
"She ran away with the money!"
As the searchers return with their reports and speculation, Valerna finally understands everything. After all her sad lies, the girl has left behind one final truth.
"She couldn't have gotten very far!"
"Yeah, we can still catch her!"
"The little thief! Wait till I get my hands on her!"
The men raged while the women fan the flames:
"Good! Give her what she merits!"
"We were so nice to her, and now look how she treats us! We can't let her get away with it!"
A dozen men start to run after her, but the giant stands tall in the road, blocking their way.
"Hey, move it!"
The men are out for blood, but Valerna knows if she felt like it, she could knock them all down, and they wouldn't be able to lay a finger on her. Instead, she relaxes her powerful stance and throws a leather coin pouch on the ground in front of the men.
"The stolen money is in there," she declares.
"Sorry, I stole it."
A perplexed stir quickly turns into angry shouts.
Valerna raises her hands to show she will not resist.
"Do what you like with me, I'm ready."
The lady grocer breaks through the wall of men, shouting at her, "How could you do this, Val?"
"I wanted the money, that's all."
"And you're not just saying this to protect the girl?"
The woman's intuition is too sharp.
Forcing a smile, Valerna turns to the tailor and says, "It was in the pot in the cabinet, right?"
The man nods energetically.
"It's true! She must have done it! I had the money in a pot! She's the thief!"
"The money wasn't the only thing in the pot, though, was it?"
"What are you saying?"
"You had some letters in there, too. Letters from the girl's father."
"That's a lie! Don't be crazy!"
"It's true, though."
"No, there couldn't have been any letters! I threw them all—"
The tailor claps his hands over his mouth. But it is too late. The lady grocer glares at him. "What's this all about?" she commands.
"Uh... no... I mean..."
"You'd better tell us everything."
The people's fiery sights turn from Valerna to the tailor.
Some days later, two letters arrive from the girl inscribed to "The lady at the grocery store and the nice giant upstairs."
Valerna's letter says the girl managed to find her father in the capital. She has no way of knowing if this is true or not. It is hard to imagine a little girl finding her father in the big city so suddenly without knowing his address or workplace. Still, she decides to believe it when the girl's letter says, "I am happy now."
Human beings are the only animals that lie. Tricks to deceive people swindle to benefit oneself and lie to shield one's own heart from the threat of overwhelming loneliness and sorrow. If there were no distortions in this world, much quarrel and dispute would surely disappear. On the other hand, perhaps it is because this world is a mixture of truth and lies that people have learned how to "believe."
When she is through reading her letter, Valerna turns to the woman.
Concentrating on her letter, she shyly raises her head when she senses the giant looking at her.
"I give up!" she insists. "Listen to this: 'I am so grateful to you and the others in the marketplace for all you have done for me. I will never forget you as long as I live.' A trickster to the bitter end, that girl," she says, smiling through her tears.
"Stop this! Please, I beg of you! Let me go!" A young man's screams echo through the void. No voice answers him.
Squatting in the darkness, Valerna counts the footsteps. Three men have come in. The disorderly footsteps probably belong to the young man. The other two are perfectly regular.
"Please, I'm begging you. If it's money you want, I'll get you all you could ask for on the outside. I promise. I won't forget to show my thanks to you. Please!" The only reply of the two men who have brought the young one here is the clunk of an iron lock opening. "No! No! Please, I'm begging you. I'll do anything you want. Anything!"
A muffled thud is the sound of flesh tearing, bone wrenching. Someone collapses on the floor. A strangled scream. The slam of an iron lock closing.
Valerna knows the young man has been thrown into the shell diagonally opposite her own. When you are locked into one of these windowless shells, your hearing becomes acutely sensitive. "Don't do this! Let me out of here! Please! Let me out of here!"
From the sound of the voice, the giant can imagine a young man's face with boyish traces: a small-time hoodlum hardly a step above a teenage gang member. When he was still on the streets, no doubt, he used to swagger down the sidewalk, his cunning but cowardly eyes darting every which way. The two men who brought him here maintain their muteness to the end, their footsteps moving off together. The heavy door opens and closes again.
Left alone in the shade, the young man howls his entreaties for a time, but when he realizes they will do no good, he shouts himself hoarse, spitting out one expletive after another until he begins to lament.
"Quiet down there," an old man exclaims out from one of the inner shells, "It won't do you any good to make a fuss, Time to give up, sonny." This is the voice of the oldest man living in the dozen or so shells lined up in the darkness. He was already here when Valerna was sent to this place. It is always his role to console and alleviate the obstreperous newcomers.
"If you've got time to bawl like that, keep your eyes closed!"
"Just make sure you keep sucking on your memories of the outside-like a piece of candy!"
Sounds of suppressed laugher come from the surrounding shells. Valerna joins in with a smile and a sigh. All the shells in the murk are supposedly full, but few of their inmates are laughing. Most of them have lost the strength to roar.
"Hey." the old man continues in his role as adviser to the newcomer, "No point making a fuss. Just calm down and accept your fate. Otherwise..." and here a note of intensity enters the old man's voice, "They'll just drag you out of here feet first."
This is exactly what happened yesterday to the former inhabitant of the young man's shell. He had been screaming on and off for a day. Then came a day of striking his head against the shell wall. Then nothing... until he was dragged out in silence.
"So get a hold of yourself. Don't let the darkness swallow you up. Close your eyes and imagine pleasant scenery from the outside, the bigger the better: the ocean, or the sky, or some huge field of grass. Remember! Imagine! that's the only way to survive this place." This was the advice he always presented to the newcomers. But the young man squealed tearfully.
"Who the hell do you think you're kidding? Survive this place? And then what? I know what this place is. 'No exit' prison! They throw the lifers in here, give them just enough food to keep them alive, and in the end they kick the bucket anyway—Am I right? There's nothing left to hope for." His shouts turn to sobs again. This is the reaction of most of the newcomers. Nor are they mistaken. This is a prison. Each of the "shells" is a solitary cage with bars, and the sun shines on a prisoner only on the day of their funeral...
"Everybody dies, that's for sure. You just cant let your mind go before your body does. Hope doesn't have to fade unless you throw it out yourself," the old man goes on softly. Then he adds with feeling, "This system we live under can't last much longer, either." The older man is a political prisoner. As the leader of the anti-government faction, he long resisted the despotism until he finally lost the struggle and was incarcerated.
The young man has no ears for the older adult's words; however, he continues thrashing on the floor and crying. This fellow won't be in his shell much longer than his predecessor. In a few days, or in less than a month at best, he will go to pieces. The darkness is that powerful. Stripping a prisoner of light is far crueler than taking his life in an instant.
"My my," the old man reflects, "This fellow's not going to do us much good in a prison break." The old revolutionary crows, it might be a genuine laugh of a bold front, but in any case, almost no one laughs in response. Tomorrow morning- or rather, since there is no clear-cut "morning" in the darkness- after they go to slumber, wake up, and have their next meal, another cold corpse will be dragged out wordlessly from another shell.
"Hey, listen. How many of us are here now?" the former revolutionary asks. "Answer if you can hear me!"
"I can hear you," Valerna says. Her is the only voice.
"Man, this is bad, we were full up a little while ago."
The old man gives a cynical chortle.
Valerna questions, "I wonder if something's happened out there."
"Maybe so," answers the old insurrectionist.
"If you ask me, this would be about the right time for a revolution."
"My 'boys' aren't going to keep quiet much longer..."
"Uh, what was your name again? Val? Have you noticed what's happening? How there used to be a lot more guys getting thrown in here until a little while ago, and most of them real nobodies, not worth sentencing to life?"
The young man was one of them- nothing but a small-time crook. It just so happened that the storehouse he broke into belonged to a prosperous man with ties to a powerful politician. This was the only reason they put him in a shell.
"The shells always used to be full. They would throw a bunch of men in here and they would die, then the new men would come, and they would die..."
The young man was one of those, the terror of being enveloped in obscurity was too much for him, and he went to pieces. He was apparently having hallucinations at the end: "I'm coming Mama, I'm coming. Wait for me, please, Mama..." he repeated over and over like a child. "Where are you, Mama? Here? Are you here?" and he gouged his own eyes out with his bare hands.
"I figured things were getting scary out there—the guards losing control—so the government was really starting to crack down- which is why these shells were always full." This is what brought the young man here. Blood streaming from his eye sockets, he died grousing in snatches, "What did I do? Everybody knows damn well... there are plenty of men way worse than me..."
"But now the place is empty. Do you know what that means, Val?"
"Sure. There's so much crime out there now that the government can't suppress it."
"You got it; the whole royal family might be strung up by now for all we know. Its a revolution. It will happen any day now! That means you and I will get out of here. My boys will come and get us. Just hang in there a little while longer."
The giant nods in silence. The old resister goes on, "Your strong, Val. Not many people could stay as calm as you, thrown into a shell and enveloped in darkness like this."
Not even Valerna can explain it. It is true that she was remarkably composed when they put her in the shell. The darkness was something she seemed to recognize as a distant memory. In the distant past, she, too, may have tasted the anguish of the other shell inhabitants so tortured by the fear of being sealed in umbra.
"How are you so tough mentally, Val? Does it mean you, too, are a revolutionary?"
"No, not me..."
Her crime is hardly worth discussing. She resisted somewhat under questioning when they brought her in as a suspect, and for that she was branded a rebel and thrown into a shell. The old man is probably right, though. The country's dictatorship is almost certainly in its last days. "It won't be long now. We'll be back in the real world before we know it. I have hope right in here, and it will stay here until I abandon it myself," the old revolutionary grumbles as if trying to persuade himself.
The prison falls soon afterward. Armed young men come charging into the darkness and open the shells' barred doors. Embraced by his "boys", the old radical goes out. "Wait," Valerna cries, trying to hold him back.
But she is too late. Anxious to see the new world following the destruction of the old system, the old reformist steps outside and opens his eyes.bIt is evening. Though the sun is nearly down, its light is still strong enough to burn eyes accustomed to total blackness. The old revolutionary presses his hands to his eyes. And with a groan, he crumples to his knees.
Valerna has saved herself by shielding her eyes with her arm.
Not even she knows what provoked her to do this. Could scattered memories have taught her that the genuinely hair-raising thing about punishment by darkness is what happens after the release from prison?
Val thought to herself, "When could I have been imprisoned, and where? More important, how long have I been on this endless journey?"
With bleeding eyes, surrounded on the ground by his boys, the old reformist searches for the giant. "I came all this way, Val, only to make one terrible mistake at the bitter end. My eyes are probably useless now."
This is precisely why he asks Valerna for one last favor. "Tell me, what is the outside world like? Has the revolution succeeded? Are the people happy? Are they smiling joyfully?"
Valerna opens her eyes slowly and just barely beneath the shade of her hand. As far as she can see, the ground is covered in corpses. The carcasses of royal troops and revolutionary troops are heaped on one another, and countless civilians are dead. A mother lies breathless with her small child in her arms, the bloody remains of the child's father next to them, arms outstretched in a frivolous endeavor to shield them.
"Tell me what you see, Val!"
The giant fights back a sigh and says, "You must work from now on to build a peaceful society."
The old revolutionary senses the truth.
"I won't abandon hope, Val, no matter what."
As if to say, "I know that," Valerna nods and begins to walk away.
"Where are you going?"
"I don't know...someplace."
"Why don't you stay here and build a new world with us? You of all people can do that, I know."
"Thank you, sir, but I'll be moving on just the same."
The old revolutionary does not try anymore to hold her back. Instead, as a parting gift, he repeats for Valerna the words he spoke so often in his shell.
"There will always be hope, wherever you are, until you yourself abandon it. Never forget that!"
Valerna walks on.
Her eyes chance to light on the body of a young boy lying at his feet. The boy breathed his last with eyes wide open in despair. She kneels and kindly closes the boy's eyelids. She knows deep down, in a memory too far away for even her to reach, that while darkness can be a great source of terror, it can also bring deep and lasting peace.
Everyone knows this general as "The Butcher."
He is strong in battle, a skilled tactician, he has mastered the techniques of turning the specifics of topography and timing to his advantage, and he is outstanding, above all, in the skills of an individual warrior. Victory on the battlefield, however, does not lead straight to butchery. Many generals have been nicknamed for their military prowess- the Victorious, the Indomitable, the Invincible- but only one is known as the Butcher.
"Do you know why that is, Valerna?"The general himself asks as he gloats over the vast mountain of corpses Valerna does not reply. She entered the fray as a mercenary, but her exploits far outclassed those of the regular troops. For the general to call a woman into his presence and speak to her face-to-face is apparently an honor beyond even most officers' wildest dreams.
"Not just from winning battles." The general goes on. "That would be too simple: just kill the enemy general. Take the big one's head and the battle's over. Right?"
Val nods in silence. That is how this battle should have ended instead of continuing for three days. The enemy general proposed a surrender on the first day. He offered his head in exchange for the lives of his men and villagers. But the Butcher rejected the offer and continued his all-out attack on an enemy that had lost the will to fight, annihilating them in the process. The last day was used to burn down the forest into which the unresisting village had fled.
"The real battle doesn't end when you raise the victory song on the battlefield. If even one person survives, the seed of hatred lives on. I'm talking about the desire for revenge. Nothing good can come from leaving that behind. You must cut the cause of future troubles at the root."
This is why the troops under the general's command killed the young men of the village after they were through exterminating the enemy troops. They also killed the unarmed elders. They slaughtered mothers fleeing with children in their arms. They eradicated the children they stripped from those mothers' corpses. "Do you think me cruel, Valerna?"
"I do." She answered, nodding. The officers gathered around them went pale, but the Butcher himself smiled magnanimously and went on.
"You didn't do any of those things, I gather?" He questioned.
"My job is to kill soldiers on the battlefield. My contract doesn't call for anything else." The giant replied.
"And i'm saying that that is a follish line of thinking. The soldiers you killed have brothers and children. Do you plan to go on living in fear of their revenge? That is sheer stupidity. If you wipe out the entire family, you can live without such worries, you see." The general laughs uproariously, and the surrounding officers all smile in response. Valerna, however, her expression unchanged, starts to walk away. "Where are you going?"
"We are through talking, aren't we? My contract has ended."
"Never mind that. Just wait."
When the general says this, several soldiers stand to block Val's way.
"Listen. I've had reports of your performance from the front lines.
What do you say to fighting under me from now on? You can exploit your
martial talents to the full."
"I am not interested."
"I will never draw my sword on an unarmed opponent."
The Butcher is momentarily taken aback, the shock written clearly on his face. "You still don't understand, do you? You should try reading a little history. You'll find that hatred only breeds more hatred. This is what inevitably brings down even the most prosperous nations and powers, which is why I make absolutely sure to sever it at the root."
"If you ask me, general, war and butchery are two different things."
"What are you-"
"The same goes for valor and brutality."
"You, a lowly mercenary, dare to lecture me...?"
"Let me tell you something about hatred, too, general. It doesn't evaporate from cutting off a life. It remains-in the earth, in the clouds, in the wind. I have lived my life in that belief, and I intend to go on doing so."
"Butchery is the work of cowards. That is what I believe."
"Where do you get the nerve...?" The general glares at Val, and his men draw their swords. At that very moment, from within the scorched forest come the cries of soldiers.
"Here are some! Five of them still left!"
"Over there! They went that way!"
Distracted by the shouts, the general commands his men. "Hurry, capture them! Don't let even one of them get away! Hurry! Hurry! You can't let them escape!"
The men blocking the giant begin to fidget, and none of them thinks to stop her as she calmly walks away.
"Do you hear me? You must not let them escape! If even one of them gets away. I'll have your heads-all of you!"
The general's calls are clearly those of a coward. The Butcher presided over many battles after that. And he burned countless villages to the ground, butchering all of their inhabitants. Then, one night, something happened. The general felt a strange itching sensation on the back of his hand. It was different from an ordinary insect bite or skin eruption. It was deeper down and felt like a kind of squirming. "This is odd..."
He clawed at his skin, but the itch would not subside. It was very strange: there was no redness or swelling, or sign of a rash. "Maybe I touched a poisonous mushroom..."
The general had burnt yet another village to the ground that day. Surrounded by beautiful countryside, the town in times of peace had been extolled as the "Flowering Hamlet." In keeping with the name, the villagers poured their energies into cultivating flowers of their hues, and the ones in full bloom in this particular season had the colour
of the setting sun. Indeed, the entire village looked as if it had been dyed the color of a beautiful afterglow. This was the villager that the general burned down with flames far redder than any sunset. The villagers, who ran in circles begging for their lives, he killed one at a time. Far redder than the sunset, far redder than the flames, was the blood that soaked into the earth.
"But this is how it always is. I didn't do anything special today." Shaking the hand that refused to stop itching, the general took a swallow of liquor.
And at that moment, it happened. Tearing through the thin skin of the back of his hand, a number of small grain-like things that emerged from within. No blood flowed. No pain accompanied them. Exactly the way plants sprout from the earth. No, the things that covered over the back of his before his very eyes were, unmistakably, plant sprouts. Horrified, the general took a razor to the back of his hand and tried to shave the things off. When the blade came in contact with them, however, they gave off sounds like human moans-sounds exactly like the moans of a human being dying in agony as his entire body is slashed by swords. Or like the moans of a person who is being burned alive.
"Shut up, damn you! Shut up, you hellish-" Holding the razor in one hand to shave the other, he could not cover his ears. His body was soaked in a greasy sweat by the time he succeeded in shaving the horrible things from the back of his hand. To salve his own anger, he shouted for the men who were supposed to be guarding him. "Where the hell have you been?"
"You should have come running when you heard unusual voices coming from my tent! That is your job as my guards!"
The guards gave each other puzzled looks, and the first replied hesitantly to the general, "Forgive me, Sir, we were standing just outside the entrance, but we never head any such..."
The general glared at his guards, enraged, but after struggling to keep his welling anger in check, he shouted. "Never mind, then. Get Out!" He was too upset to waste time on subordinates. Almost immediately, the itching attacked the back of his hand again. But this time, it was not limited to his hands: his flanks, his shoulders, his buttocks, behind his knees, his whole body started to itch. Alone again, the general tore off his nightclothes and inspected his entire body in the moonlight seeping through the roof of the tent. The things were sprouting from everywhere now, and some even had leaves beginning to grown on them. The general raised a soundless scream and began wildly attacking the growths wherever he could reach them.
Each one he cut from his body released a horrible moan- horrible, horrible,horrible...His bed sheets turned green before his eyes, and soon the numberless sprouts were transforming into numberless human corpses. They covered not only his bed, but the whole earth, before they melted into the darkness of night and vanished.
One sleepless night followed another in endless succession. The horrible things kept sprouting from his skin however he cut them off. Ointments had no effect. He tried taking every poison-quelling tablet he could get his hands on, but nothing worked. He could not speak of this to his subordinates. If a rumor spread that strange plants were sprouting from the Butcher's body, it would embolden his enemies and discourage his allies.
One of his subordinates might even try to take his head at night. His cowardice had earned him, the name of the Butcher, and that same cowardice was what turned the general into a lonely, isolated man. He had no one he could tell about this. Each night the general would wage his lonely battle- through perhaps it could not be called a battle precisely. The things merely sprouted from his body and put up no resistance. When he took the razor to them, they would simply moan and fall away. What the general was engaged in on his own was less a battle than lonely butchery.
Several more nights went by. The sprouting continued with undiminished force. The single fortunate aspect, perhaps, was that the things only sprouted in places on his body where the general could reach with his razor. This could as well have been a curse, however. The general had no choice but to go on shaving the things precisely because he could reach them. Precisely because he was able to perform the butchery by himself.
He could not call for help.
His lonely butchery continued.
His sleepless nights continued.
The general's flesh wasted away.
"Why is this happening?" The general asked himself.
"Why did this have to happen to me?"
"This is a time of war. I am here on the battlefield. I have to kill the enemy to survive. To give myself future peace of mind, I have to kill them all, both armed and unarmed. It is simple common sense," the general all but spit out the words. "All I have done is the sensible thing in the most sensible way"
This night again, the sprouts emerged from his body.
This night again, the general had to shave them off.
Again the countless moans.
Again the countless bodies.
Again he heard the cock crow announce the end of the night.
Again the general passed the night without the comfort of sleep.
The general's own body, once superbly conditioned on the battlefield, withered away before his own eyes. But more than his body, his mind became unstable. He spent his days sprawled on his bed. Eyes open or closed, he would see images of his past scenes of butchery. Now he began to recall the words of a skilled but insolent mercenary. Hatred doesn't evaporate from cutting off a life. It remains-in the earth, in the clouds, in the wind. The general wanted to see that woman again-
to see him and ask him again, "Have I been wrong all these years?"
The lady himself, a woman of few words, would probably not answer his question. Still, the general wanted to see her again, that mercenary, that Valerna dame. The sun went down. The night gradually deepened. As always, the itching started, and the plants began to sprout. But the general, grasping the razor in fingers that now looked like withered branches, no longer had the strength to shave them off. His back began to itch. This was the first time the things had sprouted someplace beyond his reach- as if they had been waiting for this opportune moment. Sprawled on his bed, the general let the razor drop from his hand.
I don't care anymore.
The sprouts kept growing, creeping over him, and before long, they had covered him completely. At that point, his back split open, and an unusually large sprout emerged. By dawn, the sprout had fully matured, and before the cock crowed, it produced a single blossom the color of an evening afterglow. Many long years have passed. Visting the old battlefield, Valerna finds a flower garden there. Blooming in profusion are flowers of clearly different shape and color than the ones along its border. Beside the garden stands a stone monument inscribed with the garden's history:
"In this place, a great general met his end. He was known as the Butcher. He died suddenly one night, and from his body grew many flowering plants. These were Evening Flowers, a blossom unique to a village the general had burnt to the ground. An ancient legend tells us that the seeds of the Evening Flower lodge in the bodies of those who nourish hatred in their breasts, and the roofs of the plant feed the flowers with the person's flesh."
The garden's flowers, the color of the setting sun, sway in a gentle breeze. Valerna stands there for a time, gazing at the countless flowers given birth by hatred, before walking on in silence. It is said that in the very center of the garden lies a disintegrating suit of armor, but no one has ever found it...
"The bright rain is going to start soon." The boy says, pointing out to sea.
"The bright rain?" Val asks him.
"Uh-huh. It happens every night, way out there." He says with a lighthearted smile. "It's so pretty!"
"Bright rain, huh?"
"Yeah. I want you to watch it with me tonight. It's really pretty." The boy has never once left the island in the ten years since his birth. The island is small and poor, and the only ways to make a living there are fishing from dugout boats and gathering forest fruits. One monotonous day follows another, the islanders waking at dawn and sleeping beneath the star-filled sky. The boy does not yet realize that this is the greatest happiness of all. The child begins speaking to Valerna, who turns to look in her direction. Hunkered down on the beach in the moonlight, the boy glows like a chocolate sculpture.
"Over there, where the bright rain falls, is a great, big island, right? I know all about it. That island is way bigger than this one and way more stuff goes on there and it's just full of shiny things and pretty things and food that's way better than I can even imagine, right? Don't worry, I know all about it" Val says nothing but gives the boy a pained smile.
Surpassing the horizon lies an oversized island, indeed - a vast continent. Valerna was there until four days ago. Then, rocked in the hold of a freighter for three days and nights, she crossed the sea to this island. "I know about it, but I've never seen it." The boy says, his voice dropping. He hangs his head, diverting the moonlight from his face. His chocolate skin melts into the darkness.
"Would you like to go there?" The giant asks.
"Sure I would." The lad replies without hesitation. "All the kids here want to."
"Everybody leaves the island, I suppose."
"Sure they do! Boys and girls both. As soon as they're old enough to work, they go to the 'other country.' Me, too, in another five years... I'll be ready in three years. Then I'll take the boat that you came here on and go to the other country and work hard and eat tons of yummy things." The boy raises his face again. Locked on the ocean, his eyes are sparkling. They are eyes full of hopes and dreams. But they know nothing of the 'other country'. He can never know a thing about it as long as he stays here.
Not one of the young people who crossed the sea, their eyes shining like the boy's with aspirations, ever came back.
"Of course not." The boy would say.
"The other country is so much more fun, there's no point in coming back!" The boy believes in the happiness awaiting him in the other country.
About which he knows nothing. Only when they leave the island do the brown-skinned people here learn that their skin is different from those in the other country. That the language of the island is of no use across that sea. That the people of the other nation look on the islanders with cold eyes. The only way to meet people with the same brown skin, the same language, and the exact birthplace is to head for the ghetto.
The first words the boy was sure to learn in the other country's language would be the ones the other nation used for people like him; illegal alien. By the time he realized it, he would be tumbling down the hill in the ghetto. The boy gallops away from the beach and returns a few minutes later with an overflowing armload of fruit. He says they grow where the wind from the ocean meets the wind from the mountains. "They're at their best on nights when the moon is full. Go ahead - have a taste." He wipes a piece of fruit against his worn-out shirt and hands it to Val
"What do you call this?" Valerna asks.
"You're going to laugh, they pinned such a fancy name on it: 'Grain of Happiness'."
"That's a nice name." The giant bites into a Grain of Happiness. It is shaped like an apple from another country. But it is some two sizes smaller and just that much more packed with juicy sweetness. "This is great." Val says.
"You really like it? I'm glad." The boy says with a smile, but he is soon hanging his head again and sighing. "I like them a lot too." the lad says, "but I bet the other country has all kinds of stuff that's way better than this, right?"
Valerna does not answer him but takes another bite of a Grain of Happiness. The boy is right: there are many foods in the other country far more delicious than these Grains of Happiness. Or, more precisely, there were. Now, however, the other country has been transformed into a battlefield. The war started six months ago. That was when the boy began seeing the 'bright rain' every night. The prosperity of the "other country" is extreme. The most glittering happiness is available there to anyone with enough money, and money is public there without restriction to anyone with enough power. Might makes right. Wealth makes goodness. Those who are neither mighty nor wealthy obtain right and worth by finding others who are both weaker and poorer than themselves and ridiculing, despising, and persecuting them.
The island people, whose language and skin color are different from those in the other realm, are seen as the other country's shadow. The very existence of the shadow is what makes the light all the brighter. This is the only way that inhabitants of that distant land know how to think about things. Eventually, however, strength reaches a saturation point, wealth that has run its course begins to stagnate, and expansion is the only course left open. Desires can only be fulfilled through continual bloating.
For the other country to remain strong and for the wealthy to stay wealthy, the leaders of the different realms made war on a neighboring nation. "Any minute now." the boy says, looking out to sea again with a carefree laugh. "The bright rain is going to fall, way out over the sea."
The war was supposed to have ended quickly. Everyone in the other land believed that with overwhelming wealth and strength, it would be easy for them to bring the neighboring country to its knees. To be sure, at first war went according to plan. The occupied areas grew each day, and the entire populace of the other country became drunk with victory. One after another, however, the surrounding countries took the side of the neighboring nation. Which was only natural. For if the neighboring people fell, they themselves might be the other country's next target.
The other country's entire diplomatic strategy failed, which was only natural. No nation on earth will make friends with people who only know how to flaunt their wealth and power.
An allied force was organized around the neighboring nation. Together, the surrounding countries sought to encircle and seal off the other land. From that point on, the war entered a stalemate. Limited battle zones saw troops advancing and retreating again and again, in the course of which the other country's wealth and power were consumed little by little. Disgust for war began to spread among the populace, and to obliterate that mood; the military circulated false propaganda:
The military situation is developing in our favor.
Our army has again crushed the enemy's troops.
The truth was that the occupied territories were being recaptured one after another, and the allied forces were now crossing the border to strike inside the other country's territory.
"I'm responsible for the foolhardy attack by the enemy; our resolute fighting men launched a counterattack, annihilating their forces. The day for our victory song is upon us."
Stopping war was out of the question. Admitting defeat was out of the question. The people had believed that wealth and power would enable them to rule everything, but now they knew the terror of having lost both.
The allied forces were joined by a powerful supporter. A mighty empire that wielded authority over the northern part of the continent joined the battle as if to say, "Let us finish job for you," crushing the other country once and for all.
But the powerful empire was not satisfied just to destroy one upstart nation. It turned its overwhelming military might upon the allied forces. As it had so many times in its history, it seized the opportunity of its clash with the surrounding countries to further expand its power. Having lost its leaders and turned into a wasteland as far as the eye could see, that distant island now became the new battlefield. Outnumbered, the allied army hired mercenaries from other continents. Valerna was one of those. For many days she participated in losing battles in which there was no way to tell which side was fighting for the right.
After seeing her mercenary unit wiped out, Val headed for the harbor.
The boy's island has maintained a position of neutrality in the war. It is simply too small to do otherwise. It lacks the war-making capacity to participate in battle, and it possesses no wealth to attract the attention of the countries engaged in the fighting. But the giant knows what will happen. When the battle lines expand, this island will become valuable as a military foothold. One side or the other will occupy the island, and it will do one of two things; it will construct a base or reduce the entire island to ashes, thus preventing the enemy from using it as a military foothold. Nor is this a matter of the distant future. At the latest, it will happen a few weeks from now, and perhaps as soon as two or three days...
Val has come to the island to convey this message. To tell the people that as many of them as possible should board tomorrow morning's regular ferry to the nearby island. She wants them to start by sending away the children. She never wants to witness again the spectacle of young lives being crushed like bugs. "Oh, look! There it goes!" The boy cries out happily, pointing toward the horizon. "The bright rain!"
Far out to sea, a white glow suffuses the night sky. The powerful empire has begun its night bombing. The boy has no idea what the bright rain really is. He can watch with sparkling eyes and murmur, "It's so pretty, so pretty..." To be sure, viewed from afar, the bright rain is genuinely beautiful, like a million shooting stars crossing the sky all at once. But only when viewed from afar. A dull thud resounds from the sky: another dull thud, and another and another.
"Thunder? Oh, no, if it rains we can't go out fishing tomorrow." The boy says with a smile and a shrug. He's such a friendly little fellow, thinks Valerna. The boy had seen her on the shore and spoken to her without hesitation. "Are you a traveller?" He had asked and went on speaking to her like an old friend. Valerna wants children like this to be the first aboard tomorrow's ferry. "I'm going home now." Says the boy. "What are you going to do?"
"Oh, I guess I'll take a nap under a tree."
"You can sleep in our barn. Why don't you spend the night there?"
"Thanks," Val says. "But I want to watch the ocean a little longer. Tomorrow, I thought, I'd like you to show me around."
"I get it. You want to see the head of the village. I know a shortcut through the woods - right over there." The giant is hoping to convince the village head to evacuate the island. If they act right away, they can make it. They can save a lot of the islanders. But...
As the boy stands, sweeping the sand from the seat of his pants, he looks questioningly at the sky. "Funny." he says, "It sounds kind of different from thunder." The dull thuds keep coming without a break. Little by little, they draw closer. Valerna jerks her head up and yells at the boy, "The woods! Run to the woods!"
"Hurry!" Her voice is drowned out by the deafening roar of the bombardment. The bright rain has started. The island has been made a target far sooner than Valerna had imagined. "Hurry!" She yells, grabbing the boy's hand. The woods are the boy's only hope.
"Hey, wait a minute!" The boy shouts, shaking free of Val's grip and looking up at the sky. "It's the bright rain! It's falling here now, too! Wow! Oh, wow!" All but dancing for joy, the boy gallops down the beach - until he is bathed from head to toe in the bright rain.
A single night of bombing is all it takes to reduce the island to ashes.
Never realizing the value of the happiness they possessed, never even knowing that such happiness has been snatched away from them in one night's passing, the people who filled the island with their lives until evening are gone in the morning, all dead except one: the immortal giant.
On the beach at dawn, the only sound is that of the waves. Again today, no doubt, urban warfare will decimate the city streets, and tonight the bright rain will pour down on the town again. The boy who called the rain beautiful will never again open his eyes wide with wonder. Val lays the boy's corpse in a small dugout canoe that survived the flames. She places a ripe "Grain of Happiness" on the boy's chest and folds his arm over it, hoping that it will sate his thirst on the long road to heaven. She sets the dugout in the water and nudges it toward the open sea. Caught by the receding tide, rocketed by the waves, the boat glides far out from the shore.
Such a friendly little fellow, the boy smiles even in death. Perhaps it is the one gift the gods were able to bestow on him. The boy is setting out on a journey. May it never take him to that other country, she begs. Or any other country, for that matter.
Valerna knows; there is no place forever free of that bright rain. Because she knows this, she sheds tears for the boy. The rain falls in his heart: cold, sad, silent. Emptied of artillery, the sky is maddeningly blue, vast, yet beautiful.
In this village ringed by jagged mountains, the women give birth to many children. Five or six is not uncommon. Just the other day, the wife of the village headman gave birth to her tenth child. "And why do you think that is?" The young fellow asks the rover, looking down at the snow-blanketed village. Valerna cocks her head in search of an answer. Meanwhile, the young man takes something like a piece of crystal candy from a small leather pouch. He pops it into his mouth and says with a laugh, "Because they die right away."
"Uh-huh. Hardly anybody grows up to be an adult. Most kids die after five or six short summers. Look at the village headman's wife; she's lost seven kids already." Whether from a genetic problem or a disease endemic to the area, the people of this village have always lived short lives, he says, from way, way back.
"Now that you mention it," replies the giant, "I haven't seen any old people here."
"See what I mean? A few decades ago, I'm told, one person lived to be fifty, but people say that's the oldest anyone ever got in the whole history of this village. This is why we give birth to lots of kids - give birth to a lot and lose a lot. If just one of them lives into adulthood, though, the family line is saved and the village history continues. You see my point?" The young man is sixteen, as is his wife. Their first child is due to be born any day now - today or tomorrow.
The young man crunches down on the candy in his mouth. "Let's get going," He says, and around his wrists, he winds the ropes he uses to pull the sled. He hasn't loaded the sled yet, but dragging it up the steep, snow-covered road is hard work. This, he states, is why the pay is so good. Only a few days earlier, he lost his good friend and fellow worker, who had been three years his senior. When Valerna happened along, the young man asked her if she would help by pushing the sled from behind until they cleared the pass. Val agreed, and they became an instant team. The giant circles around to the back of the sled and asks, "You don't have any animals to pull the sled?"
"Afraid not," answers the young fellow. "I know it's strange, but our horses and cattle and donkeys all die young. You can spend a lot of money at the town market buying an animal, and it'll keel over before it's done a lick of work. Finally, the best way is for us humans to plow the fields and pull the sleds ourselves." The arms with which the young man himself is pulling the sled are massive, and he forges through the road's snowy cover with decisive steps.
His fellow worker was strong; still, he says. "He taught me how to pull the sled, how to set rabbit traps, how to build a fire... all the skills I need to live, with all the love he would give to a kid brother. Before I knew it, he was gone. People here always perish suddenly, They can be perfectly healthy one minute and drop dead the next. No time for suffering. Just like that. No time to call a doctor. Even if a doctor comes, there's nothing he can do."
"Did your friend die that way?"
"Uh-huh. He was shoveling the snow that piled up overnight, clearing the road, when he dropped dead. By the time we ran over to help him, he was gone. That's how it always is. Always. That's how they die. Grown-ups, kids... everyone."
"And you, too, then..."
"I guess so. Nobody knows when the moment is coming. It might be decades from now, or it could be tomorrow..." After this clear pronouncement, the young man turns to look at Valerna and, pointing to her chest, says with a smile, "Or maybe even now." The smile is genuine, without a trace of despondency or bitterness toward the severity of his fate.
"Aren't you afraid to die?" The giant starts to ask him but stops herself. It's a stupid question, she decides, and one that she is not qualified to ask. Where could a woman burdened with eternal life find appropriate words to speak to a man loaded with the peril of unforeseen death? Valerna and the young man keep dragging the sled up the steep mountain path. Their destination is the lake beyond the pass. The young man's job calls for him to cut ice from the frozen lake's surface and transport it back to the village.
"We in the village call the lake the 'Spring of Life'. If you trace the source of the water that bubbles out of the ground here and there in the village, you will always wind up at the Spring of Life." Val nods wordlessly.
"The ice from the Spring of Life takes forever to melt. That's why, look, you can even do this..." Again the young man takes a piece of the crystal candy - or, instead, ice - from his leather pouch and puts it in his mouth. "It gives you energy. It's indeispensable when doing hard work or for pregnant women or infants. Just put a piece in your mouth and it gives you instant strength." The young man offers a piece to the giant, who nods again in silence.
"We're really not supposed to give any to outsiders, but you're special 'cause I'm putting you to work. If I give it to you, though, I want you to help me load the ice on the sled. I can handle it by myself on the way back." Val mutely accepts the ice from the young man, who assures her, "It tastes good, too," and watches her, smiling. Valerna averts her gaze somewhat and puts the piece in her mouth. The ice should be nothing but frozen water, but it has a mild sweetness. Just as she expected. She spits it out when the young man is not looking. Poison. I know that taste, thinks the giant.
The village people are used to this taste, so they think nothing of it. Without a doubt, though, there is poison in the ice. The long flow of time smoothes over the wounds inflicted by history. The permanently snow-capped peaks make people forget the existence of the wide world on the other side. The young man calls this lake the Spring of Life, but those who lived far beyond the mountains, at the source of the river that feeds the lake, used to know it as the Pit of Death.
Long, long ago - several hundred years ago - the entire area around the river's source was polluted with the toxic metallic outflow from a mine. The river was filled with dead fish floating belly-up, and the poisonous gas that rose like a mist from the ground killed both the earthbound animals and the birds in the sky. The forests withered, and the lively town that had grown up with the development of the mine became a deserted ruin. Nature took many years to recover, but the forests eventually turned green again, attracting small creatures and the larger animals that hunted them. People, however, never came back, and there was no one left to hand down the story of the tragedy that occurred at the river's source deep in the mountains.
The only one who knew everything that happened was her, the woman who had lived a thousand years. The young man stands by the frozen lake and takes a nice, satisfying stretch. "You know," he says to the traveler, "I sometimes think this village might be the closest one to Heaven in the whole world. Perhaps it's because we are too close to Heaven that we're all summoned by the gods early on. Don't you think that might be true?" Val says nothing in response to this.
Over many years, this lake has accumulated the metallic poison that flowed into it from upstream. And over many years, the poison that infiltrated the soil has mingled with the groundwater, bubbling up in the spring water with which the villagers slake their thirst. No one knows the exact chemical makeup of the poison, but at least it does not cause the villagers to suffer until, at the last moment of their lives, the accumulated poison suddenly takes its toll. This may be the one favorable aspect. On the other hand, this might make the misfortune it brings all the more conspicuous.
"Still," the young man says as he saws off a piece of ice by the shore, "I do hope that the children my wife and I have will be able to live longer lives - say, if we have five, at least one of them will live long enough to grow up and have kids. That way, for me, it would be like finding some meaning in having been born into this world. It was the same for my father and mother, and my grandparents. They all had lots of kids and mourned the loss of lots of kids but managed to raise one or two to adulthood before they died. That's what gives our life meaning." He wipes the sweat from his brow and puts another piece of ice candy in his mouth.
If I were to tell him everything I know, thinks Valerna, if I were to say to him everything that had been buried in the darkness of history, and if he were to tell the other villagers, the tragedy might not have to be repeated.
The young man says, "When a baby is born here, they ring the village bell. Also when someone dies. The same for both; birth and death are like two sides of the same coin. So there's no sadness when someone dies. Everybody sees them off with a smile and a wish; 'You go ahead of us to Heaven and save a good spot there for us.' Do you understand that sentiment?"
"I do," answers Val, "I do."
"That's how we've always done it; welcoming lots of new lives to the village and sending lots of lives off to Heaven. I've never been much of a student, so I don't know exactly how to put this, but I kind of think maybe 'the village closest to Heaven' is a place where life and death are right next door to each other." The young man gives the giant an abashed smirk at the sound of his own words. "Maybe it's because I'm about to have a kid of my own that I'm starting to think about these complicated things."