I was alone in the wood, walking, in the dark. All my people were dead. Along with the traditions that we had followed. Our gods may be dead too; how can I know?
In the dark I felt a presence in the air, something I had not felt for years. What is it that builds us, here on this earth? What is it that moves us? I remembered, walking in the dark, the mystery of this life, a mystery mixed with pain.
With every step I wanted to die; I wanted the darkness to swallow me whole; I wanted to be reborn. Give me another chance, gods of my ancestors, give me another chance to do right, another chance to save my people.
A man is a warrior, but a man without a people and only his sword is hardly anything: a broken urn, a waste of breath.
“You, come here!”
She was there, in the dark, with her eyes. In the starlight I could see her huddled under a tree by the side of the path; I could smell blood.
“Help. Help me.”
She pulled back the blanket and revealed a trap attached to her foot. She looked at me, and I knelt to look at it.
“Don’t look,” I said, and I took the trap in my hands and opened it, slowly, and I heard her stifle her scream, which I am glad she did.
“Now move your foot. Move it.” And she took it out of the trap.
“Looks like the lords missed their rabbit today.”
What is this life? I who am now as though dead; I am who am a fragment of the family vase. My people believed in the Valley of Light; perhaps they are there now, tending their crops in the afterlife. I could slit my throat and join them, but now she is here, next to me.
For generations we lived in peace, the lords of this land and my people, though our religions were different. Then the king died, and his son ordered that we be burned. I was hunting, alone, for I enjoy being alone, and then I saw the smoke in the sky. I killed seven of the king’s men in my rage, but then I could not even bury the bodies of my family for I knew that more would come in a moment; the new king has bought many mercenaries.
I wish I were a magician able to summon a curse, able to summon a wave and a storm, able to cast this murderer into a hell, to torture him the rest of his days.
“What do you believe?” she asked me there, in the dark. I had moved her blanket further from the path, but part of me no longer cared whether the soldiers found us or not. I would kill her and then myself if they did. I would die laughing in their faces.
I did not answer her question.
“Do you believe in the White Light? Am I going there?”
Vengeance is a deep truth of Man, for it fuels not only empires and histories, tomes of words and a million years of stories, it does not only provide a reason for existence and elicit a structure in the naming of cities, children, doors, weapons, mountains, and rivers, no, not only that, not only does vengeance torture the mind and fuel the body, not only does it not die, but it does not really live.
Please let me explain what I mean: of course, vengeance can go on forever, as long as there is someone to remember, and to transmit the story of the evil ones and what they did, yesterday or long ago. But too it is a drug, and like a drug addict those afflicted with vengeance, as I have been, do not really live, but live inside a shadow. And shadow, unlike darkness, is the eternal between. It is neither here nor there, but a wavering middle that is torture and confusion.
She had fallen asleep on my shoulder when I saw the fairy, three feet tall and creeping over the pine needles towards where we slept.
“Ssssss,” I hissed at it, and it stopped. “Stay where you are,” I whispered. It smiled then, and I saw its teeth.
“Do you have food?” it said.
I reached into my sabretache and tossed a small piece of bread at the fairy; it caught it in its mouth and chewed hungrily. It came a bit closer as it chewed.
“Ssss. Stop there,” I said, and eased the woman’s head off of my shoulder and moved away from the tree where I’d been leaning. I watched the fairy.
“You are Hill People,” the fairy said.
“Sorry. Sorry,” it whispered.
I said nothing.
“Do you want to know my name?”
“No. Go on with you now. You’ve had your food.” Everyone knows you must not learn a fairy’s name, lest you become one of them.
“My name is . . .”
“Shh!” I picked up a rock and made as though to throw it at the fairy, and the woman stirred in her sleep.
The fairy smiled, with bright eyes, watching my hand and the rock, watching my face.
“I don’t want to know your name. But if you won’t go away, I have a job for you. Go over to the path, quietly, and walk up and down it for a thousand paces in each direction; then come back and tell me what you’ve seen. Will you do that?”
“Yes,” it said, and it ran off.
I was astonished to have seen it, really; fairies are usually too quiet to hear. Hopefully it would not return, but if it did, at least it would bring me intelligence.
I looked at the woman. I had smeared some fat onto the wound and bound it with a clean rag; hopefully it would heal. If it didn’t, I might have to cut off her foot.
I knew the trap had not been meant for rabbits but for men. It was genocide now in these hills.
The fairy came back not a minute later.
“Men! Are coming!”
I swung the woman over my back and headed deeper into wood. The fairy trotted after me, whispering:
“Where will you go?”
I did not answer.
I could see my mother’s face before me, with her dark hair, showing the grey. I could see her grey eyes too, the eyes like the fairy’s eyes, far away, musical, sharp and loving.
If I could kill the king, would I be forgiven? Would I have to kill all the Valley People too? Surely not. But what else would there be? What else can I bring to them now? We’re all gone . . .
I can see my mother’s face, like a tree, wrinkled like a tree, long like the trunk of a tree, strong like a tree. I want to weep, but I must not make the noise.
At length we reached the river. The fairy did not like the moving water.
“Bad! Bad!” it said, hopping up and down, looking at the river in horror.
“Shh,” I said. The woman was half-awake and I lowered her from my shoulder, and she leaned against me, standing on one foot.
“I’ll carry you across,” I whispered to her. She nodded.
As I started across the water, stepping carefully, I suddenly felt a huge weight on my head, and felt the claws of the fairy digging into my scalp.
“You idiot!” I hissed.
“Ahhhh!” the fairy hissed. “Ahhh!”
I gritted my teeth and concentrated on keeping my balance. The mud was slippery on the bottom and I did not want to lose hold of the woman, or of my sabretache and short sword.
Finally, I reached the other side and lay the woman on the bank, then grabbed hold of the fairy and tossed it into the reeds.
“Ask next time!” I hissed at it.
The next day I walked, and walked, and walked. I would stop to rest and the woman would test her foot, smiling, wincing. I believe that it will heal.
I could still kill the both of us. It would be a better end than our pursuers would give us. The king’s men are sure to be tracking us survivors, to keep their murders quiet; to keep the news from spreading too far. But even if it did, what then? Will the southern kings care if the Hill People are gone? What can they do about it now?
“Come,” I said, and lifted her back onto my shoulder. It is fortunate I was the one to chop the wood in my family and have strong shoulders. My brother never liked chopping the wood.
“Is there food?” she whispered.
“Take the last of the bread.”
“What about me?” said the fairy, peering at us from the trees.
“Go on with you,” I said. “You’ve had your fun, go back to fairy lands.”
“I can’t,” it said.
“They don’t want me.”
“They say I make too much noise.”
“I agree with them.”
And it howled in pain, like a spoiled baby. I advanced on it.
“Shut your mouth! You want us all dead!”
Its eyes were filled with tears.
“Come on then.”
So now there are three of us.
It is dark now and the fairy is asleep. I sit by the woman.
“What is your name?” I ask her.
“I am Red. Son of Ing.”
“I never knew my father,” she said.
“You are beautiful,” I said. “Did you have a husband?”
But she did not answer.
“I will kill both of us. If you ask me to,” I said. And she nodded.
Where will the world take us? Last survivors. I know now what they mean by survivor’s guilt: we have knowledge that is no longer needed, that was never wanted in the first place. People fear, even more than disaster, the survivors of disaster, for they fear such people will bring more; that such people’s gods must have betrayed them for some hubris, and will hound them to the ends of the earth . . .
As though gods were ever so logical. As though gods care who is king or who is not. As though any sacrifice can ever appease them, even of a child . . .
We worship the sky just as the Valley People do; we worship the fire, and the trees. So what if some of our stories were different? What is this lust for sameness in Man? I say, I feel it in myself too, even I who have travelled some still feel the provincial suspicion even at the face of this woman, though she is a Hill-dweller like me she is from another village, and part of me is afraid. Part of me longs for the daughters of my own little circle of earth . . .
Perhaps that is all that genocide is. This provincial fear. I want to cut it out of me.
We are approaching the mountains. And we are running out of food.
“We can fly over mountains,” said the fairy.
“Not in this life.”
“Yes,” said the fairy. “But I must tell you my name.”
Liana looked at our little friend. And she looked at me.
“Tell us your name,” she said.
What’s in a name, eh? Words fail to describe language, after all. Is a name a thing? Is a name a being? I have heard some far peoples worship words themselves; I can understand this.
The fairy said its name, and I felt different, immediately. I held onto Liana’s hand. And the fairy’s eyes seemed different then.
“You are my people now,” said the fairy. I will not write her name here. Fairy names, as you well know, have strange power.
A bee came then, larger than a buffalo, its huge eyes terrifying, and yet, I was not afraid, I knew that it was a friend, even as my eyes widened at the huge stinger pointing from its end.
“Climb on,” said our strange little friend. And we did, and we flew over the mountains on the back of a bee.
Its fur was very sharp, and it smelled strange, like dust, and lemon. I could feel its hungry mind, its kind mind. And Liana, who I had begun to think of as my Liana, began to laugh in the wind.
Fairies know vengeance too. Likely it was no accident our she-fairy came to us, wounded in the dark of the forest. Fairies have watched us men for long and long, as we chopped down their trees and burnt their meadows. Their memories are longer than our own, and they live longer. In truth, they are as human as we, only different enough, different enough to evoke that fear.
Seven years later, my second son in my papoose, Liana and I and three of our fairy friends perched in the trees, on the ridge above the castle of the king.
My heart burned disaster, burned hot and cold, burned with the faces of my dead ones, of all my dead ones. How many could I kill before it would be enough.
I felt Liana’s hand on my arm.
“See, look,” she whispered. With our fairy sight we peered into the castle courtyard where the king, his priests, and the nobles were gathered in their finery for a sacrifice. As we watched the priest opened the neck of a boar, and we could hear its terrible cry, and Liana looked away.
“Shall we curse them?” my fairy friend asked.
“They are already cursed,” I said.
I grow old. I grow old. My children are fairy now as I am. They have known no other life. I never tell them of who I was, nor does Liana. I fear that the stories will make them want to burn the castle, will make the king and his men want to kill all fairies next, or worse, that it will make us want to kill all men.
My name is Red, son of Ing, but I have other names now, secret ones.
Think of this story as my gesture of peace, if you find it. Think of what the king and his cousins give you: is it sufficient to balance out all that they take, and all that they will take? Can you bear the terrible burden of freedom? For it is terrible. To serve no one at all, except brother and sister, neighbor, cousin, stranger, friend.
Listen some night when it is cool, and calm: you may hear, under the cicadas, the fairies laughing.