The Year of the Anabatic Wind was coming to an end. Everything had happened as it should have done, every prophecy made by the Under Personage, the Great Ancestor of the Pit, had come to pass. All except for the Wind itself. There had been no sign of it, no rush of warm air over the fields, no whisper of it blowing in the flatlands away to the north. I could not help but think that it was all my fault.
I had always considered my dreams too dull to give to the diviner for interpretation. They were the kind that everyone had, and their meanings were plain. The building of a house — that meant that I yearned for a proper home and a good husband. Walking along a road — that meant that I was on the path that had been set out for me by the Personage during the Nights of First Becoming. Dull, all of them. Except for the dream I’d had in the final month of the Year of Unsowing, two years ago. In that dream, I flung myself bodily into the Abyss and my heart squeezed against my throat, beating waves of white heat into my arms as I dropped. Cold wind cut my face.
When the archivists had read aloud from the prophecies at the next year’s beginning, I almost choked.
“She will be in black dress,” they had said, “in imitation of the soul which is absent of light. Before winter’s end she will hurl herself into the Pit and come to the light of the stars and be reborn in the Ancestor’s image. So commences the Year of Resplendent Sacrifice, foretold by the Under Personage, the Giver of Night.”
We all looked around at each other, gathered before the doors of the Archive, wondering which of us would be the chosen girl. I had been scared. The flames from the lamps twisted the other girls’ faces, hollowed out their eyes, brightened their teeth. It’s me, I said to myself, because I have seen it. We looked at each other and I knew that every pair of eyes had landed on me, whipping away before I’d noticed. Perhaps they’d all seen me fall in their own dreams. Perhaps my fear showed like a pimple on my nose or a rash which crept across my forehead.
“For only in light,” the assistant archivist had continued, her arms glittering from circlets of black gemstones, “can a soul be unmade and there return to its maker in darkness.”
The Year of Resplendent Sacrifice had approached its end and no one had jumped. During eighth month, Demira Sinter, a girl who lived next to us in a house with three floors, approached the Abyss and stared down into its darkness. We crept along behind her, darting from rock to furrow, wondering if Demira would be the one to do it, but she plodded back to the village without a word and shut herself in her bedroom. And then, on the final day, a woman who lived alone named Clara Reed put on a black bathing robe and, shrieking to herself, leapt into the Night to join the Personage. She had been of middling age, only some years younger than Mother —not a girl by any standard. But the archivists declared the prophecy to have been fulfilled and we let the Year of Resplendent Sacrifice fall from our memories.
The following year, the corn grew seven inches in the first quarter. Three juniper birds were seen at the appearance of the Bright Scar, and a father of two boys was lost while out gathering white mushrooms in the flats. All just as it should have occurred. And again: ‘But where is the Wind?’ People began to worry. My mother asked it at the start of each morning, and by evening’s close she had fretted herself to the point of sickness. The anticipation across the rest of our community was so unbearable that by the end of the year, every gust of warm air from the Abyss was proclaimed to be the beginnings of the Anabatic Wind and we gathered at the fields’ edge to await — what? Something. Anything would have been better than that stillness. For a moment, the sweet grasses around our ankles might shiver and shake and the archivists would stand eager to record the Great Event, only for their pens to fall to their sides, their parchment to hang limp in their disappointed grips.
“One thousand years,” I heard the assistant archivist Janny Lin murmur to a colleague. We were walking back to the village after one of these false alarms. “One thousand years and before tonight only a single prophecy has not unfolded.”
“What was supposed to happen?” I asked, moving to walk beside Janny and the other archivists. Pendants of black slate swung from their wrists, their badges of office.
Janny narrowed her eyes and squinted ahead as if she had not heard my question. “A ball of flame,” she said. “It was meant to appear as the Bright Scar opened. So it was foretold.”
“A candle flame?” I ventured, though I knew what she would say.
“Greater than that.” Janny’s eyes flicked over to me and away. “A sun, the Under Personage called it.”
I had heard of suns before, but only in tales passed around by the boys who worked at the outer edges of the village. There were places, they said, where days were counted by the movements of great circles of light, and that the light of one of them was brighter even than the wood fire in the village hall. The people there had no knowledge of the Ancestor and no notion of who they were in the world. They had their sun and that was all that they ever thought they needed. I never liked to imagine those places.
“But it didn’t appear?” I asked Janny Lin.
“The Year of the Life Star, it was called. Our eight hundred and first year. No event like it was recorded by the archivists. No ball of flame. Nothing.”
“But what about last year?” said a shadow to Janny’s right. Her colleague, dressed in the same robes the colour of dusk. “If we are to count it. The girl did not jump, but a woman in her place.”
“It is not well to speak too long about these things,” said Janny.
I saw Mother watching me from a group of older women, her brow folded in disapproval. I nodded and drifted away from Janny Lin. It is not well. The Personage was the Voice of Truth in the Darkness. It was never wrong, could never be wrong. Infallible, the High Priest always said. Undeniable. Unreadable. Fifteen hundred years ago, the Abyss had spoken and the first men and women of our village had recorded the words. A map, the Priest said, of our entire existence, stretching out into the night, the undying darkness when starlight did not shine. It was why we worshiped at night and set great store by the dreamworld. We stayed within the boundaries of the flatlands, just as the Personage instructed, because beyond the flatlands lay the ends of life.
In the beginning there was the void, the High Priest said at the start of each mass. And the void did take form. It became a nest of snakes, and the snakes tried selfishly to fashion a world of light for themselves, but darkness swept up from the deeps and scattered them. Then came the Abyss. The Personage was everywhere, but especially in the Abyss.
The light from the stars had all but faded by the time we reached our homes. The day was at an end. Mother rushed straight to her seat by the window where she kept her collection of black quartz stones. They had been gathered from the very wall of the Abyss and were strictly contraband, but mother had traded six days of new sour milk for them and they had been a solace to her, a reassurance that she was at one with the Abyss and the Personage. I went to my bedroom, and eventually to sleep, and the Year of the Anabatic Wind passed unfulfilled.
The next morning, I woke with the first stars. I washed in cold water drawn up from the well and ate white bread with Mother in the kitchen. She was always up before me. She only slept for a few hours, she said; it was all she could manage these days. She couldn’t listen to the sounds of the rafters in her bedroom creaking, because it put daggers in her head. I watched her from across the table and knew that she had been worrying about the Anabatic Wind.
“The year is over, Mama,” I said.
“What will happen will happen,” mother said, folding her hands.
“But there’s no use dwelling,” I said.
“There’s use,” she said sullenly. Like a child. Like me. “You’re just like your pa, Elin. Pretending everything’s as it should be when it is not.”
“But nothing has changed,” I went on. “The wind did not come, but things are the same as before.”
“You need to understand,” said mother. “That the word of the Personage is the world.”
“I know that, Mama.”
“And the prophecies are the truth of the world and of the village. If they do not come to pass, then it is we who are made false.”
I got up and left before she thought to say anything else. We who are made false. Mother’s words crawled into my ear like a beetle. They stayed as I rinsed the breakfast dishes and made ready for school. I was false, then. The dream had been a preparation for the year to come, a revelation, I knew it was called. And I had been too afraid.
The schoolhouse was across the square: I could see its lanterns glowing from our kitchen window. Beyond the schoolhouse lay the edges of the village and a place called the Den, where our wine was made. Boys and girls whose parents did not want them going to school were sent there to work. They were not usually seen this close to the square, but that morning, as I stepped out into the still air, I saw one of the boys sitting in the shadow of the fountain. Dirt plastered his face and his hair was tousled at odd angles, as if he’d been in a scrap. He might have only been two or three years younger than me. He stank, too, I thought, as I walked by the lights of the fountain.
I wouldn’t have talked to him if he hadn’t been crying. His lips quivered and tears glittered and fell from his face.
“You can’t be lost, can you?” I asked, standing beside him.
His head shook and I heard a sniff.
“Not,” he said.
“Then what’s the matter?” I said.
The boy looked up at me and I saw confusion in his gaze.
“They boys from they Den,” he said. “They stoled my waxy doll and threw it into yon Pit. Now it’s there at they bottom.”
“That’s not kind of them,” I said, frowning in sympathy. He spoke strangely, this boy. I’d never heard anything like it. “But there isn’t a bottom of the Pit, you know.”
I knew it was blasphemy for him to say it. The Abyss had no bounds, no limits that any person could comprehend, that’s what the High Priest had taught us. There could be no bottom.
“So is too,” the boy said, looking away now. “I’n been there and thrown a girt rock. Crack, it went in they water!”
“But there’s no way down,” I said. “That’s what the adults say. And anyone who tries to find a way is breaking the Will of the Personage. You couldn’t have been down there because there’s nowhere to go.”
“Purse on edge,” the boy mouthed.
“I know about those boys though,” I said, deciding to show sympathy. “From the Den. My friends are always saying what mean things they do there.”
“Will you go with me?” the boy said, standing up. A single tear shot down his cheek just like the Bright Scar.
“With you?” I asked. “To the Abyss?”
“Yes, missus,” he said eagerly. “To they bottom.”
“Can’t your dad help you find your doll?” I asked.
“No’m,” he blinked, and looked away. “I hain’t seen my daddun for long.”
“Where does he work?” I asked
“With they horsies.”
I didn’t know what that was.
“Can you come?” he asked.
“I can’t,” I said, deciding not to argue with him any longer. “I’m sorry. If they did throw your wax doll down, there’s no way to get it back.”
The boy was still there when I came out from our morning lesson an hour later. He was there again after I’d seen in the milking. He had draped himself over the rim of the fountain, cradling his forehead with his wrists. He was a naïve little boy, I thought, and his father should know better than to fill his head with lies about the Abyss. There was no bottom. There was no other side, either, nothing but the presence of the Personage, which, I knew, was also nothing. The Great Ancestor was nothing and it was everything. The yearly offerings of syrup and wine that we poured into the Pit were still falling, because there was no end; maybe one year’s wine had caught up to the previous year’s, but none of it would stop until all prophecies had been fulfilled and the wine was absorbed into the Personage and the Personage knew how faithful the village had been and how to weave the Unending Darkness into our souls and lead us out beyond the stars. Clara Reed would have been plummeting now for just over a year, sticky from the syrup.
It was why I had been so afraid to jump. I had stayed awake into the night, imagining the sensation of falling blindly down until I lost consciousness or died and became part of the Ancestor. What would dying feel like if you couldn’t see yourself? If you could only taste the air? Perhaps I wouldn’t know that I had died, and would simply slip into death just as we slip between dreams. It still scared me: I was ashamed that a woman had jumped in my place. The act had not been performed correctly and I had been made false. If only I’d done what my dream had shown me, then the Anabatic Wind would have come by now, smoothing down the crops, rushing through the village like the breath from the very throat of the Ancestor itself. But I had stopped it from happening and I had broken the system of things. Like the snakes who had desired light, I had been selfish, and had thought only of myself.
I stood watching the boy, cleaning my hands with a cotton towel. The air was crisp and I could smell what each house on our side of the square had been cooking. Fish: swordtail, eel, red mullet. It was the first day of the New Year, and a time to celebrate. But the boy looked forlorn in his posture against the fountain. He reminded me of the pictures of the heroes from the old legends mother kept in her bedside table. Aorlius, whose lover was transformed by the Ancestor into a sprig of lavender, and Draxyx the traveller, who journeyed to the furthest constellations and in dying shaped the first light of the Bright Scar. The wax doll must mean a great deal to the boy. But why would he hang around the village square, making up stories about the Abyss? Perhaps something else was wrong, something he wasn’t saying. If I were to go along with him, then I might be able to help.
I threw the towel onto the porch chair and marched down the steps. I had time: I was free now until 2 o’ clock when we had class again, but Tsa Jin never took attendance. She’d never even learnt our names, she was too old. After that was Mass, but I could not miss that. The archivist and the diviner were to recite the Prophecy and give the year its name.
“What are you called?” I asked when I had reached the fountain.
“Sammy,” he said.
“My name’s Elin,” I said.
Sammy said nothing. Just looked at me.
“Do you know exactly where they threw it?” I asked.
“Down in they Pit,” the boy said. “It’m be by they Wailing Tree. They way down they stairs.”
“Is that far from the village?” I asked. I’d never heard of a Wailing Tree.
“Out passing they Den,” he said. “Off they track to they grain store.”
“Not far from the flats,” I said.
“Let’s see if we can’t get your doll back,” I said.
“Truthf’ly?” Sammy jumped to his feet, eyes widening. “Now we’ll get it for shorn! I’n frighted to go by myself. It’s too dark in this place.”
“It’s not dark in the day when the stars are out,” I said.
“It is hawful dark,” he said.
“Well, we can’t be gone for too long,” I said, beginning to walk towards the north street which led out of the square. Sammy caught up with me and we took the path which led to the outskirts of the village to the east.
Other girls passed us whom I knew from class and I tried desperately not to catch their eyes in case they told about me to Tsa Jin. They would talk among themselves, too, and make up silly things. I fingered a piece of candle in the pouch of my apron.
We came to the Den, a series of low, wooden sheds where the sour vapours of fermenting redberries caused my eyes and mouth to water. Outside, a row of barrels waited to be rolled into market. Some of them would go to the chapel and be consecrated in ritual. Then off to the Pit, just like us. Though the stars were out and pulsating in their usual rhythms, the land beyond the Den was dark. There were no street lamps this far out, just the faint seam of the Bright Scar. It appeared for a few hours during the middle of every day. It was a silver line across the sky which glimmered like an opal. Some said it was the Mouth of the Universe and therefore unholy because it represented the inverse of the Ancestor’s emptiness. But I knew it was as the High Priest said: without the stars we would not know the grace of the Ancestor. We would not comprehend the darkness.
“Almost to it,” said Sammy. We had walked for half a mile or so, bending gradually west towards the Pit. The boy kept close to my side and I was glad that he felt safe with me. I was glad also that he had some idea of where we were going, because I did not know this end of the village well. I was most familiar with the land to the east, where the banks of the Axis widened and the bracken grew thickest.
“One day I be gone up to where they’s more than they stars,” Sammy whispered as he stepped off the remnants of the dirt track. He hooked his fingers into my palm. “Daddun says.”
“More than stars?” I said. “What do you mean?”
“Outer they sky.”
“There is only the village,” I insisted. “The village and the Abyss and the Personage.”
“That’s what your biggun’s say, they priesties.”
“Well it’s the truth,” I said. “It’s the way of the life and the world.”
“Life,” said Sammy. The earth under my feet was full of grit and flint. It sang and cut at my shoe leather. “They’s not nothing. Daddun says life be a cand-all in they dark.”
“A candle flame is only given life in relation to the darkness,” I said, remembering what I’d learnt in class. I removed the stick of wax from my apron and rolled it between my fingers.
“No’m,” came Sammy’s voice. He said nothing after that. Not until we had reached what I knew was the very lip of the Abyss. Its chill breath rose from the deep and rolled over us and I heard the echoes of the first prophecies. That’s what Mother said it was, that hush of air, it was the First Word recreating itself, coming back again and again to speak into the silence.
Sammy bent to scan the ground, fingers pressed against his knees.
“What are you trying to find?” I asked.
“Shush,” he said. “They Wailing.”
I fell quiet, frowning. What could he mean, the wailing? Was it the tree he had been talking about? But then a new sound seemed to drift up from the Pit, a piping that reminded me of the wooden flute Grandmother had once owned. Mother now kept it in the bottom drawer of her sewing desk and would play it to me sometimes as I sat reading. It calmed me. Sammy spun around and stepped towards the edge. He took long, searching strides.
“Found it!” he said.
I followed his voice, straining my eyes, and discovered the boy bent over a small object. It was a piece of rock full of holes the size of my thumbnail. They might have been tunnels drilled by insects hundreds of years ago. The wind rose and flew through the holes like a musical instrument, making the same piping that I’d thought came from the Pit. This, then, was the Wailing Tree. “They holy tree,” said Sammy.
“It’s like it’s calling us,” I said. “But where?”
“To they Pit,” said Sammy. He rose and walked into the wind. A cloud must have passed over the stars, because for an instant I lost sight of him. Blinking hard, pushing colours into my head, I felt the stone at my feet.
“Sammy!” I called.
His voice came from below. I stood on the edge of the Abyss and made out his silver neck, his eyes reflecting the stars, as Sammy looked up at me in triumph.
“They steps,” he said.
“There can’t be steps,” I said, feeling around the edge with my shoe. “Sammy?”
The Abyss yawned. Lightless, empty, unending. How could there be steps? How could anyone have thought to climb down into this place? It was forbidden.
“We shouldn’t be here, Sammy,” I said. My heart shook my voice.
“I’n know they way.”
Sammy’s own voice was receding, growing fainter. I lost sight of his head. Sammy! I wanted to scream. Wait, for all the holy days of life, wait! But I couldn’t leave him by himself. Not out here.
Kneeling, I managed to descend to the ledge and follow Sammy down a shallow path which hugged the wall. The piping lessened to a whisper, and presently the starry sky became only a faint, narrow band over our heads.
“Sammy!” I shouted. “Please let’s get back!”
“They doll’s not far,” came his voice. It sounded boxed up, encased in cloth or cotton.
I pressed my hand to the wall as I went. The rock wasn’t dry as I’d expected, but was covered by a thin sleeve of moisture, like fruit that has just been washed. I concentrated on moving, on putting one foot in front of the other, for although the darkness wasn’t an obstacle, the thought of the empty space caused my heart to patter even faster. The space that was the Personage. But I did not dwell on that for too long. If I caught up with Sammy, we could climb back to the surface. I would even make him a new doll if he liked.
I kept going for what must have been half an hour. My feet were beginning to ache and the air was growing colder, burning my throat so that I breathed only through my nose and as gently as possible. I scolded myself for not thinking to bring a cloak or a coat. I paused for rest, leaning against the wall of the Pit, and once my breathing had calmed, I realised that Sammy was further ahead than I’d first thought. The quiet was so complete that it squeezed against my inner ears. I screwed up my face and felt the sting of the cold on my eyes. This was true darkness. Darker even than the well in our yard, darker than night in my bedroom when I burrowed into the blankets. I had lost the stars.
“Sammy,” I said. The word hissed like water on a hot grate.
I said it again a little louder. There was no echo this far down. The air felt so thin and so cold that it could no longer carry my voice. Perhaps the Personage did not allow for sound?
I tried once more, this time shouting Sammy’s name as loud and for as long as I dared. The word felt raw around the edges and trembled on my lips. Colours returned, red velvet and lavender, dancing at the corners. And there, there — the tail end of an echo which sank away so quickly I almost missed it.
Sammy’s voice. It was quiet but clear, and came from somewhere below me. Not so far. I sighed and tucked my hands under my armpits, listening for it again.
“He’n winking at us.”
Sammy was barely raising his voice: he couldn’t be far. I placed a hand back on the wall, feeling the wet rock that suddenly put me in mind of the minnows from the river mum sometimes fried on Holy days.
“Stay where you are!” I called. “Don’t go any further without me.”
After another ten minutes of creeping and stumbling, my foot found a further ledge. Shifting blindly forward, waiting for the corner, I began to realise that there might not be another step. This might be the very bottom of the Abyss. Every breath shot to my head so that I felt as though I would fall. Did they know up there? Did any of the priests, the archivists and their recording, did they know that the Abyss had an end? The ground sloped a little. Eventually it evened out and I paused, breathing quietly.
“Didn’ I say right?” Sammy’s voice escaped from the air in front.
“Is this really it?” I asked. “This is as far as it goes?”
“Listen to they river,” he said.
We both fell silent. There, like a picture that suddenly slips in from the back of your mind, the soft rush of water. It couldn’t be far from us, perhaps only a few feet. I took another step, holding a hand out in case I walked into Sammy. This kind of darkness was still new to me. Another four steps and the trickling was directly in front of me. A skin of ice. My hand broke it open, all the way to the wrist. It was shallow, a ribbon of water moving across the sloping rock, following the wall of the Abyss. Where had it come from? The Axis curved in from the flats; we drank from it before it carried on into the dark, but it did not approach the Abyss, as far as I knew.
“What should we do?” I asked. Go back, I almost answered myself. Go home.
“See they flickeryin’ star. They’s where my doll is.”
I had missed it entirely: a pinprick of light a star, as bright as any in the sky, but here it was on its own and low to the ground, pressed in by the Abyss. It looked as though we could approach it, even walk towards it. I stared at the tiny, quivering thing and the air seemed to move. Colours flared at the edges, glowing and pulsing. The blood pounded through my head and I did not even think to feel the cold.
“How do you know it’s there?” I asked, the words almost catching in my throat. Like a daddy longlegs latching itself to a windowpane.
“I been there,” said Sammy. “There’s a way outer they Pit.”
“A way out?”
“By they star.”
Looking over my shoulder, I saw the star imprinted onto the darkness and as my eyes moved back, it followed in broken lines, scoring itself into my vision.
“The river’s flowing in the same direction,” I said. “We can follow the water.”
“Warty star,” Sammy chuckled. Water star.
There was a stream, I remembered as we shuffled alongside the flow, in the stories about Draxyx and the Ancestor. It had cooled his feet on his journey from star to star. The Ancestor had appeared as a shadow on the water.
In some places, the rock bed was as slimy as the walls and it became impossible to scramble further without use of our hands. Spider-like, we became creatures with long, wet limbs. We took sips from the water and it numbed our throats. Sharp gullies caused the river to spray and we had to feel for the connecting rock. My soft shoes were almost useless.
“It’s bigger,” I said. “The star. Twice the size, can you see?”
But Sammy did not seem to be listening. He was clambering over the rocks ahead, silhouette breaking through the starlight. There were scrapes and flat splashes as he slipped, grunting to himself, murmuring questions.
I found him crouched by a lip of rock, the edge of a small aperture in the ground. Every now and again, a wave of loose water was shunted into the hole, where it resounded with a slap. Sammy was gripping the rim, peering into the dark.
“Can you see anything down there?” I said.
“Need they light, Elly,” he breathed.
“The light?” I asked.
“They cand-all,” he said. “They waxy.”
“Oh,” I said. I drew out the heel of white candle. The taper was dry, but I had no way to light it. Wait. I felt the breast pocket of my cardigan, and yes — a pair of matches, wrapped in a fold of striking paper.
Shadows rippled on the rock as I lowered the flame, holding it out of reach of the water. There was something down there. I caught the gleam of a small white figure in the dark.
“They’s mine,” said Sammy.
“That’s your doll?” I asked. I drew back the candle to steady myself. I looked to the star. It was edged with blue and no longer twinkled in the same way.
“They light, Elly,” Sammy said again, nudging my arm.
Hot wax fell as I brought the flame back. The doll was there alright, just beneath the surface of the water. It stared up at us, expressionless.
I was about to speak, to suggest that one of us try to fish it out, when Sammy stirred. A voice was coming from the star, muttering and echoing. Too indistinct to make out what it was saying. With a scrape of his feet, Sammy leapt across the opening.
Still warm, the wax shaped itself to my fist as I ran. I slipped and banged my knees, but lumbered on. The light had doubled in size. The river sparkled and divided into pools. By the glint of polished rock above, I realised that the Abyss had narrowed and had twisted into a tunnel. The light, I remembered. She will come to the light of the stars and be reborn. What if this was all part of the prophecy? What if the Ancestor were waiting at the end to wrap me in dark arms and send me back to the village? The star filled the way, its rays piercing the walls. I was blind. The light stung: even with my lids squeezed shut it still burned a way through.
The Abyss came to an end. I walked out of it, both hands shielding my eyes from the burning starlight. A cold wind swept my hair back and something rustled like sweetgrass in the fields. Was this how a star was meant to feel? The wind came again, stronger this time. I’d never felt it so strong. It fell to a low breeze and brought with it the scent of sweet grass when it is added to hot water and the steam billows around the room. Less familiar scents, too, though pleasant. Taking a sharp breath, I raised my hands and made myself look out.
Fields like the patchwork quilt my mother worked on in the evenings. The strange, warm pink of a sky, deep and unending. I was on the side of a great hill. The cold waters trickled out through crevices in the rocks to join a wider river that snaked towards — what was that? A precise line where the sky met the fields. And above it, a circle of orange light as big as a copper plate. It hurt to look at its face. My head pounded and hummed, pushing tears down the sides of my nose. Where was this? It was all so bright. So distant. Had Sammy meant for me to come here?
I strode forward from the opening onto a plateau of long grass, hands shielding my eyes, and turned to inspect the hill. Its slopes climbed for what must have been a mile, I couldn’t tell. A further, smaller peak emerged from its rear as if it desired one day to break away. The sun was laughing at me. I heard its chatter. Where was our sky? The darkness and the stars?
A shout to my left. There were people on the hillside just above me, four of them, descending on a thin track which wound its way up and disappeared into vegetation.
“You down there!” came the call again.
Their cheeks were red and they wore bright clothing, one man leading, two women behind him. They each carried a basket on their arm. I could not see what else to do, so I waited. But I would be ready to run, if there was a way.
“Are you lost?” the man said. He placed a foot on a stone made wet by the river. “You’re both lucky we were foraging this side of they mountain. Not many come out this far.”
A shout came from behind the women.
It was Sammy. I said nothing, but studied the man’s face. It was wrinkled and dark, although he might have been younger than mother.
“Miss Elly helpin’ me find they way again,” said Sammy, coming forward to place a hand on the man’s forearm. He seemed to have taken on a new way of moving in this bright place, confident and tall. Older, I might have guessed.
“Fact is,” the man said, his voice lowered as if confiding in me a terrible secret. “Sammy here went missing on this trail not long afore now. His daddy will be greatly pleased.”
“Where am I?” I asked.
“Red Mountains,” the man frowned. “I don’t see you in they camp afore.”
“Stephen,” the older woman said, taking a step towards me. “See how pale she is. She’n not from they camp. She’n one of them from they inside.”
“From yon Pit, Stevie,” Sammy nodded.
“Now you say it,” the man peered closer at me. “You could be right.”
“See her eyes, too,” said the woman. “Bigger’n ours.”
“Is that a sun?” I asked, looking behind me to the circle of orange light.
“Don’t insiders know they sun?” he said.
“Course not,” said the woman. “I hear they seein’ they holes in they Red Mountains and call them stars.”
“Well, if you’n say so,” said the man.
He offered his hand. Its palm was creased with dirt, fingers thick and blistered.
“Better you be coming with us.”
I took a step back. “The Personage sent you?”
“They purse on?” he grinned.
“Be they god,” said the older woman. “You don’t know they stories? They left to worship they new god. A crazy, willifying god whom bides in they dark. They say they priesties made up they future in a list and now they follow them year on year.”
“No god like that here, girly,” said the man, his hand still outstretched. ‘No stories, neither.”
Glancing over my shoulder, I saw the sun behind, glowing gold near the break of the sky like a pool of molten iron. She will come to the light of the stars and be reborn. This man did not know the Personage. There was no going with him, or any of them. I would not stay here on this hill. I would go to the sun: by the time I reached it, it might have settled in the fields.
Springing away from the foragers, and with a last look at Sammy, I leapt into the thicket where the river vanished and began to pick a path down the mountain. I ignored their yells, shrugged them off like whining flies. I would follow the course of the river, like Draxyx from star to star, with the Ancestor as my companion. I would come to the sun, bring it back for the village.
I darted between low-growing trees, listening for water, pausing in the undergrowth to breathe in the new smells. I felt a warm glow on the backs of my hands, my arms, my cheeks. What year would it be now? What would the Personage have named it? The Year that Elin Reached the Sun. The Year of the Bright Lands.