The face of the mountain slid off while we were en route to the yearly miracle. Otherwise, the range was fixed to the horizon ahead like future time—always approaching, but never arriving. We trekked day and night to reach our destination, which was located somewhere around the vanishing point. From our homes it was a ten-day journey, all ascent. Leader liked to say it was difficult to indicate this direction properly on a sign. The arrow would very clearly say up, but the mind would persist in reading it as forward.
Spring had been venturing into the landscape, marking the rocky terrain with green shoots and mud from recent rains. The journey might have been quicker by horse, but only the men were permitted to ride. In our procession, the boy children went first on mules so their view could be unobstructed. The girl children, me among them, walked next with the women, who carried the group’s bags and babies. We were followed in the rear by the husbands on horseback. And last, of course, was Leader, the better to watch over us all and ensure no one fell behind.
The bloom would not open until we arrived, but it was not waiting for us. It was a matter of timing. Each year in mid-March, the petals uncurled from their fetal sleeping positions, stretched out to face the sun. The flower saw all it needed to of the world in a matter of days (in other words, as Leader said, enough). When the final petal had wilted and fallen, confettied the rocky outcropping where we knelt together in prayer, we would pack up and leave. But we needed to be there for the unfurling because this was Leader’s gift to us. Witnessing was how the men became holy and the women learned to be of service.
After a girl’s seventeenth witnessing, she was ready to be wed and to birth children into the embrace of the Leader, which enveloped us all. I was quiet and considered pious, so Leader had promised me to the boy who rode on the first mule. Each year as we journeyed, I studied the back of the boy’s head, memorizing the whorl where his black hair came together at a tiny bald spot. I could have drawn that pattern better than the contours of his face. I imagined touching that absence while counting the ninety-nine knots on my belt, silently reciting the names of Leader’s forms from each of his past lives, before he achieved his final manifestation in this one. There was an empty space at the end of the braided cotton for the hundredth knot, as in all the girl’s belts. It would be tied after my wedding this year, when the boy would finally tell me his true name.
We were still three days from the flower when a distant roar reached us. We did not usually walk single file but sometimes the trail forced us into a queue. We’d just formed a line to travel through the narrow canyon flanked by two steep walls of stone. We remained frozen for several seconds, listening to the sound ricochet off the walls to our eardrums. The mountain clearing its silted throat, preparing to remove the pit of rock and debris that had lodged there over winter.
Leader spoke often of the ocean, though most of us had never seen it. Like all the children, I’d been born in one of Leader’s houses tucked in the valley a week or so’s walk away. The flower was the furthest we’d go, we’d ever been. The roar evoked the waves Leader talked about, but the noise only grew louder, without receding. The sound came first, I remember that clearly. Sound first, then the boy’s head turned backward, his open mouth, screaming. A chorus of unanswered cries: Leader, Leader. The horses’ and mules’ eyes rolling and their mouths frothing. The women and girls scattering to press against the canyon walls, clinging to the rough stone. Then the horses and mules bolted in the direction we’d come. Hot breath from their nostrils seared our skin as they squeezed past, leaving the women and girls on the path.
For a few moments we stood in place, waiting for the disaster to arrive. Then from somewhere behind me, I heard a voice calling for us to move, to flee. Around me women were hiking their ankle-length dresses up to their knees to run. The sight of so many bare legs at once was an unbearable intimacy. I’d never seen the scar laddering up my mother’s shin before, the butterfly inked on a recent initiate’s calf.
A force gripped my wrist and yanked as if aiming to dislocate my shoulder. My head turned to follow my arm and I saw my cousin pulling me along like an obstinate mule. She was running toward a shadow on our left that yawned itself into the mouth of a cave. Inside, the space was as cavernous as our high-raftered gathering hall. Women and girls continued to dart in after us, dropping their jute carrier bags and then collapsing with groans of relief.
The collection of limbs beside me felt familiar, and amongst the arms and legs I made out the faces of my mother and aunt. There was a disorganized roll call of names cried out at random until everyone had been counted and identified, all twenty of us. A low hum of muttered prayers filled the cave until the barrage outside overtook it. I covered my ears and watched as the darkness become deeper, more absolute.
After some time, I began crawling, seeking the well-worn trail. I wondered if once the fear wore off, the horses and mules would run a circle right back to us, return to the weathered hands that had always tended to them. Or if they’d keep running, carry the men and boys to lands I couldn’t imagine. I tried to picture the boy on the first mule watching us emerge from the cave, or regarding an unknown expanse. In each case, the face I summoned was expressionless. Like a portrait drawn not from life or memory, but a secondhand account.
As I crawled, I felt others creeping next to me, drawn in the same direction. After a short distance our heads butted against a wall where the cave entrance had been. We stood and touched a solid expanse of stone and packed mud, the mountain’s sloughed-off detritus. But it was shaped like a mound and there were soft divots that could serve as handholds. I reached up and climbed until I saw a glimmer of the daylight I knew must still exist. The opening was a crack only wide enough to peer out of while reaching a single hand outside. I could not make sense of what was visible through the opening; the perspective was askew. Every angle looked like the ground. Somewhere above us a river of rock, stone, and mud had been released. Thus freed, it had cascaded wildly down the mountain to fill the canyon.
Back in the darkness, a match was struck, and then another. Faces materialized in the gloom. The women who had been repeating Leader’s past forms aloud in unison grew silent. We peered at each other. No one felt compelled to state what was obvious about the omnipresent darkness, that it signaled an utter lack of egress. My aunt sat up after some time and dug through her bag, calling out to the other women who were carrying food supplies. They named each item in their bags. Then the women carrying water named how many sips were left in their canteens. Then how many sticks remained in the matchboxes. Then how many candles. How many prayerbooks. How many tools. How many days till the witnessing. How many scrapes, cuts, and bruises.
For some, the permablack surroundings disrupted the body’s rhythms and made it difficult to stay awake. But that night, or what passed for it, I had trouble sleeping. The hours evaporated. I was already prone to sickness at this stage of the journey, this height. The altitude makes your body aware that it is breathing, but I don’t think the body likes to remember. I slipped in and out of dreams, not knowing when I was awake. The air was thick with epiphany. I dreamt the women were whispering stories to each other, or else I actually heard them. I sensed my mother’s hands emerging from her skirt, spreading wide in a pose of offering. What could she give that had not previously been pressed upon her, on me? She began a story I had never heard before, but that she must have collected in the never referenced time before me, before Leader. I imagined her carrying the story for decades, its contours shifting as she ventured now to speak it aloud. It felt a time for revelation:
“Once, there was a childless couple that had reached an age at which they could no longer hope for children. They lived in an isolated stone house in the high mountains, where it snowed quite heavily during a certain portion of the year. The couple kept several goats, selling the milk in the nearest village to provide for themselves. On one such trip to the market, the man passed a squat partridge ensnared in a hunter’s trap. The bird squawked miserably, and the man felt a twinge of pity for it. The bird was a wholly ordinary partridge; ordinary in the sense that it was like any other partridge, though each partridge possesses a striking swath of stripes and spots that renders it—upon further examination—anything but ordinary. Seized by a momentary impulse, the man opened the trap to free the partridge, which promptly flew away.
“Later that evening, the man and woman were drinking tea by a fire as snow blanketed the mountain. They heard a knock at the door, which was unusual given not only their remote location but also the inclement weather. The woman opened it to a shivering young girl crouched on the doorstep. The couple had never seen her before. The girl told the couple that she was an orphan whose parents had recently been killed in a bitter land dispute. She had been walking for days searching for a hot meal and somewhere she might sleep for a night. The couple immediately brought her into their home and let her warm herself by the fire. They led her to their tiny extra room, fashioned from a kitchen pantry, with a child-sized bed that for many years they had wished to fill.
“One night turned into a week, then a month, and then a year. Finally, the couple made clear that the girl could stay forever if she wanted, as their daughter. The girl was quiet and loving and doted on the couple. As they were now deep into old age, they welcomed the unexpected boon of her company. The girl asked for a few skeins of wool so that she could practice her weaving, which the couple happily provided. She then sat her parents down and told them the only other thing she would ever ask from them was to never enter her room while she was working. The couple thought her weaving must have been a form of communing with her departed family, and out of respect for this, they naturally agreed.
“The girl locked herself in her room for longer and longer periods, but each time she emerged, it was with a tapestry of increasingly spectacular beauty. The tapestries sold in the market for large sums of money, allowing the couple to cease their own difficult labor. For a time, the three of them were content. After several months, though, the couple could no longer contain their curiosity. How could such a young girl, they wondered, create objects of such miraculous beauty? One morning, when the girl had locked herself in her room, the couple knelt by the door’s keyhole, desperate to behold their daughter’s craft.
“As they peered through the keyhole they were shocked to see not a girl in the room but a small partridge with a decimated plumage. They watched as the partridge plucked its own wing and tail feathers to create a shimmering pile of down on the floor. They noticed the large gaps in the tapestry lying in front of the bird and understood, suddenly, that the feathers were what had made the tapestries so dazzling, so unique. Entranced, the couple continued watching until their arthritic knees demanded they change positions. The man cursed under his breath as he tried to straighten his leg and the partridge looked up, startled, spying two pairs of eyes glinting behind the keyhole. It let out a long, low wail, then flapped its wings and jumped out the window. The couple never saw the girl or the bird again.”
My mother did not wait for a reaction after finishing her story. I heard the rustling of her skirt as she settled on the ground. I could not see her face but knew she had turned away from me. I felt every step of the short distance between us. Still, a thin thread connected us: the knowledge of what she’d spun out from deep within her, and what it had cost her to reveal this to me. One could give and give of themselves and label the act devotion, though it might equally be called a flaying. One could ask others to let them keep a single secret for themselves—their sacrifices to survive—and have even this request betrayed. And if so: buried deep inside, one might still find an option left. In my whole life, spent at Leader’s feet, I’d never known my mother to have any secrets. Nor had I ever dreamed of being charged with guarding such value myself.
Dawn broke with a single beam of sunlight that filtered through the crack and pierced the wall behind me. One of the food carriers opened a bottle of milk whose scent turned the dank cave air sweet and pastoral. We each took a sip, inhaling the meadows surrounding our houses where our brown cows usually grazed. Another woman passed around a packet of crackers and we each self-rationed, cracking off pieces or taking handfuls of crumbs. I palmed this meager breakfast and crept back to the opening, climbing to the top of the mound. Outside, the exterior looked the same as yesterday. Though perhaps some of the sharp edges had settled into new patterns, like a prism rolled in a palm, revealing different facets with each shift.
From the opening, I watched one of the dark rocks dislodge from the canyon wall across from me and fall. I followed its trajectory but it did not land. Instead, it grew wings and flew up to the opening, alighting on the mound covering the cave entrance, directly in front of my face. The crow peered into my eyes and cocked its head, studying my features. I opened my palm and dusted out the remaining crumbs. The bird pecked at them and then turned and flew off, not taking long to exit my limited field of vision.
Down among the women, we wondered aloud what had happened to the Leader, the men. Were they dead, injured? Even if they lived, would they survive without us? I wondered, too, if they had any intention of looking for us. Was Leader already telling a story about our sacrifice? One as sacred as a bloom pushing itself out of the dirt each year; an ending repeated over and over until it formed another beginning.
Though Leader forbid contact with non-initiates, we knew there was a town near our houses that was aware of us. They might send someone to come looking. If not for us in particular, then for survivors in general. Anyone else who might have been on the path to the summit at the time of the landslide. Periodically, the women would each take turns climbing the mound and yelling for help through the opening, wary that every time some stones clattered to the canyon floor, and all that returned was her own echo.
When I climbed back to the opening the next time, there was a shiny black button on top of the mound. It looked like the exact button the women sewed as a fastening on all the men’s cotton pants. I pulled loose some thread at the end of my belt and tied the button there. It was the size of the broadest part of my thumb and it was comforting to rub it against my index finger. My mother and aunt kept telling me to count my knots, to recite the names, and I would make the motions but be gripping the button instead. In the darkness, the ritual sounded the same. I did not tell my mother or aunt about the crow, nor the button. I did not tell them I could no longer conjure the boy’s whorl, sketch the lines on Leader’s face. If any other woman had seen anything atop the mound, while calling out to the empty canyon, they said nothing. It was impossible to tell what everyone kept to themselves.
Another time, I found a brass buckle atop the mound that looked like the kind we used to tighten the leather straps that saddled the men’s horses. It was night and I only noticed it through a stray gleam in my peripheral vision. I threaded my belt through the buckle so it sat against my waist. The button and buckle had appeared like gifts, but they were given without any direction, any higher purpose. I could do with them as I wished. I could keep them or hurl them into the darkness below. I could recognize their simple, functional beauty or deem them wholly plain and ordinary. I marveled that the giver had asked nothing of me, not even to notice or accept their offerings. Leader would have offered a sermon about such tokens, but he was not here to deliver it. The resulting blankness in my head was unnerving. But it grew as I sat holding the objects, started to become companionable. The new silence held.
I fell asleep there, curled against the top of the mound. I dreamt of the partridge, a now featherless bird that kept trying to fly but sailed instead into gnarled, naked branches, having nothing left for itself or to give away. I dreamt the crow was Leader in another form, swooping in to assure us he was still watching. I dreamt of the strongest power I could imagine, flight. A pair of wings sprouted from my shoulder blades, but no amount of flapping would lift my feet off the ground. When I woke, I found that the buckle, pressed against my stomach during the night, had imprinted itself on my belly. I was surprised the skin there was still malleable, stretched thin as it was from hunger.
And so we continued, pressing on somehow in the cave. We told time the old way, by the movement of sun and shafts of light. We learned to navigate with our eyes closed, moving through the colorful ribbons that danced against the backs of our eyelids. We finished the milk, half the water, all the crackers. We burned the prayerbooks for light and warmth. We sat in darkness to not use any more matches. We conserved our energy until there was no more left in reserve.
Outside, on a ledge high above us, the flower would have bloomed by now, if it had not been crushed beneath the falling rubble. The crimson petals would still have opened and fallen in our absence. I pictured the unfurling in my mind, how it might look with no crowd gazing upon it, no chorus of sacred song. No one to commemorate the bloom’s reemergence, to recognize the very same flower that, in another lifetime, was plucked to close the loop of a garland placed by Leader’s betrothed around his neck. And Leader’s neck: bare, unadorned, the skin liver-spotted and wrinkled. Riddled like any other person of a certain age with signs of human frailty.
It was possible, I knew, that the flower’s blooming had been witnessed. And after, its fallen petals might have shriveled and been ground beneath the heel of a person who knew nothing of Leader. A person who lived unburdened by another man’s past lives and the weight of the stories he’d accumulated in them. A person who had taken a walk with no intention other than to stretch their legs, who had by chance reached the top at the perfect moment to look upon a flower blossoming before sinking into the melt. That alone seemed worthy of wonder.
There is a ring we wear when we are betrothed. It is a thin gold band given to us by the Leader at birth, kept safe until engagement and resized for the hands we’d grown into. My fingers had become bone-slender and it was difficult to keep the band on. I was spending more and more time at the opening because it was taxing to keep climbing up and down. The women rarely moved at all anymore, and I felt reluctant even to call out to them, fearing I’d get no response. Once a day I placed a finger beneath my mother, aunt, and cousin’s noses, holding my own breath as I did so.
One evening I climbed to the opening, thinking this might be one of the last times I could make it to the top of the mound. I wanted to look at the stars and reimagine what life looked like on the outside. I wanted to be caressed again by the silence, let it fill slowly with only my mother’s story, my own idle thoughts. Above the canyon wall, just a sliver of sky was visible. I could see the moon, the night held together by a single, crescent fingernail. After some time, I noticed that my ring had slipped off my finger, but I did not reach immediately to put it back on. I wondered if this was a sign of weakness, a failing. But oh, it shined so beautifully in the dirt.
I fell asleep and when I woke with sunrise, the ring was gone. In its place was a slim, silver whistle we used sometimes to call in the herding dogs from the fields. I remembered the noise it produced was sharp and could be heard from quite a distance away. Sometimes even the townspeople’s dogs would bark and come running until Leader chased them off. I had barely any breath left. But I blew and blew and blew, naming to the wind where to carry the sound.
Rumpus original art by Carl Dimitri