Saturday
Jan042014

A Source

William VanDenBerg


 

We follow the seashore for a long time, then turn and head inland onto the prairie.

I'm part of a tribe—we're an old man, four women, and two children. I'm one of the women. We walk single file toward a distant gray line of mountains.

Herds of bison roam by often. There's no shortage of food. We leave the carcasses to rot under the sun, take only their ribs, work them down into short spears.

We sometimes come upon tribes of small ones. They grunt and gesture, but speak no words. They're scavengers. They carve no idols, holler and fling rocks when we approach. They're too fast to hit with our weapons.

We still remember tribes like us—we remember exchanging members, bartering cudgels for flakes of brightly colored stone.

Those days were long ago.

Time quiets our memories, wears the colors dull.

 

 

We watch the sun drop to meet the horizon. We're still walking.

The old man asks, Why does the sun disappear?

Because the sun is running, I say.

After some time, the old man stops. He turns around and fixes his gaze on me. He asks me what the sun is running from.

I think about it. As we walk, the prairie changes, begins to ripple into hills. Darkness floods the landscape. We come upon a stand of trees and make camp beneath them. Birds sleep in the high branches. We see their oval shadows in the moonlight.

We huddle together. I explain that the sun disappears because the sun is running from the moon.

The old man, on the verge of sleep, commands: Tell me why the sun is running. Tell me the whole story.

I explain:

The sun and the moon. The sun told a lie about the moon. The moon found out about the lie. Everyone believed it. The moon was disgraced by the lie. In anger, he vowed—he vowed to kill the sun.

The sun, being a coward, fled.

The moon followed the sun's tracks. He hunted. The sun came to the base of a mountain. When he looked back, he saw the moon trailing close behind him.

The sun climbed. He arrived at the summit and was trapped. Having no choice, he leapt into the air. He found himself floating higher and higher.

The moon had never seen anyone rise into the sky. He got to the summit and was afraid. It took him a while to work up the courage.

And so, in the sky, the moon's pursuit continues.

 

 

Later. We find some small ones perched in a tree.

The old man says, Tell them the story about the sun and the moon.

They stare at me from the branches, cowed by my voice. Bones litter the ground beneath the tree. They make no sign of understanding.

We move on when I finish. They follow our tribe for the next few days. They hunt us like we're wounded.

 

 

Every night, the old man comes to one of the women, one of us. He'll sometimes then move on to another, but that happens less and less. A year has passed since one of us had a child.

When we remember, we remember him young, his hair black, lit by the fire.

He's been coming to me more often lately. Before sleep, he presses his face against the back of my neck and asks for more explanations: What source do rivers come from; who speaks the words in my head; what'll happen to my voice when my body is gone.

I do my best, but there are only so many stories.

 

 

The days shrink, contract. We find ourselves in a valley surrounded by high mountains. The snowline drops further each day. We build shelters, hunt often, store furs. We prepare for winter to arrive.

Others live in the valley with us.

They look like the small ones, but they're more reclusive. We catch only glimpses and murmurs of them. Their cheeks are pierced with thick shards of bone, their tones low and blunt.

The old man explains: There's plenty of food for all of us. We'll just leave each other alone, he says.

 

 

Snow blankets the valley. We wear layers and layers of fur. We make a game out of it—how much skin can we possibly cover? One child wears a swath of bear pelt as a mask, his eyes the only part exposed.

 Gray clouds conceal the sky for days. The old man asks me why the sun is hiding, and I explain: The moon has found the sun's trail. It's closing in.

One day, I come upon several members of the other tribe. They're near me, but I'm hidden by a stand of trees. I overhear them speaking foreign words, new tones and constrictions of voice.

Later, I spend time trying to replicate them. This fails—my mouth refuses to perform their syllables. A member of my tribe catches me trying to speak the new sounds. She looks at me like I am a stone or a river.

 

 

The mountain and the valley darken during the day.

It's happening, I say. The moon has caught up.

We watch the sun become obscured. Eventually the only light is a gleaming half-ring, and then the valley goes black.

When the rest of the tribe screams, I scream right along with them. We scratch at each other, claw at the ground. I don't know how much time passes in the darkness.

After the sun comes back, they turn to me for an explanation. The sun escaped, I stammer. The moon nearly caught him, but the sun is more cunning.

Only the old man and the children seem satisfied with that explanation. The other women have more questions. They ask why the moon got so close in the first place. If the sun is so smart, why was he nearly caught?

I have no answer. I just raise my open palms toward the sun in a gesture of praise.

 

 

We spend the bulk of our time in a large cave with a bison hide draped over the entrance. When we look outside, we see the same snowy landscape we've seen for the past three months.

There's something wrong with the old man—his eyes are yellow and he doesn't ask for stories anymore. He's prone to fits of anger and words just babel out of him. At night he curls up alone, watches us like we're enemies.

 

 

The other tribe sneaks into our cave late at night. They take the children and the old man and leave the four of us.

As they're fleeing, we spear one of them through the chest. I approach the bleeding creature and kick him onto his back, look into his eyes. He barks some foreign words when I remove the spear. His blood soaks into the late winter snow.

Where's your tribe taking them, I yell. Tell me or I'll hurt you more.

He doesn't respond. He just breathes worse and worse until his eyelids shudder and he is gone.

There's no moon tonight, so we have no way to track them. We're forced to wait until morning.

At dawn we find the bones of our people scraped clean of flesh lying at the entrance to our cave.

We pack up our belongings and flee the valley. We leave their bones unburied.

 

 

Spring has nearly come.

We follow the rising snowline higher and higher into the mountains. The animals we hunt grow strange and knotty—they're mounded with fur and are nearly too tough to eat. The other women claim that we'll discover tribes like ours hidden up there. I disagree, but my opinion is no longer included. Now they meet without me, lead me higher and higher.

 

 

When I wake, they're gone. I remember a woman, one of my tribe, whispering in my ear last night: If you come down the mountain, we'll kill you.

It's the stories, she said. They're your fault.

So I go further up. I rise past the treeline. It's warm now, and the snow melts under the high, cloudless sky. Passes unclog; the ground clears. I find lakes—not ones scummed by algae but shallow mirrors of water. There's no food, but the water is unbelievably pure. The water is like breathing.

When I dream, I dream in pieces—I see the faces of my old tribe, the backs of their heads, snow lacing the prairie, sunlight bursting off a ceaseless body of water, a spear in mid-air against a cloudless sky, the moon through a tangled ceiling of branches. I think I hear the old man—he asks me what lie the sun told. Was it enough to be hunted forever, he asks. Is it enough for any of us? Is it?

I follow the ridgeline toward the top of the world. My breathing grows ragged and my gait erratic. If you come down, we'll kill you, someone says. There's been no food for a long time. The sun observes me. I feel his gaze on my back. If I reach the summit, I don't know if I'll have the strength to jump, let alone whether I'll fall or float. There's a third option, a voice says. The voice comes from a long way off. It continues: There's a hollow deep in the mountain, and it rings with a voice. You should understand that you're not running—you've always been here. You're part of something larger. You're water, wind, and salt.

The voice grows ragged and I recognize it as my own.

At the summit there's a cliff.

I can't say whether I fall into the hollow or off the cliff, but I fall regardless and am soon gone.