V a l e   o f   T e a r s

by Kaas Baichtal

Chapter 3: June

(read chapter 1) (read chapter 2)


In June the scents of bog sage and wild onion carried on the breeze, filtering down from the highest reaches of the barn in snatches. Double-crabapples and double-cherries would be flowering now, and laburnum with its chains of golden petals, and the canadian lilacs that had replaced the earlier-blooming french.

Desirey could not see them, but she could dream of them.

In the earliest weeks of her imprisonment she had been mad with desire to escape. She had clawed at the wood, punched the hardpacked earth with inhuman fists, flung herself repeatedly against the walls until her body was covered with bruises. But she never found a way out, and in the mornings the bruises were always gone.

Now, in June, she lay still and silent through the long mornings and longer afternoons, listening intently to the wind in the trees and the songs of warblers and finches carried on the air. The low coo-ah, coo, coo of the mourning dove brought tears to her eyes. The harsh keeeer! of a red-tailed hawk made her shiver and press herself against the earth. The thrumming of grasshoppers and wasps and flies seemed the very heartbeat of the world, neverending.

Almost as if in apology for what she had become, her senses and emotions had become painfully acute, and at times her sense of beauty was near crippling in its intensity.

-----

But so too came the other times: the falling-times, when the world seemed to get thinner and thinner and the black of nothingness leered through from beyond like night peering between the particles of a brilliant noonday sky.

During those times, evidence of the outside forest seemed to recede into a suffocating silence, and the deep ominous shadows inside the barn seemed to drag her down toward the inky crevice at the bottom of the slope. And even during the days the shafts of sunlight reaching down from above seemed only another kind of darkness, shadow-beams.

It was during the falling-times that she, once an innocent and human little girl, was capable of the desire to kill.

-----

Water was the biggest problem at first. It seemed that aside from the souls of people, she had little further need to eat. But water, water she needed and longed for and cried for.

In the mornings, she would climb up as high as she could go and thrust her killing-tentacles through between the slats of wood trying to get the traces of dew that collected on the barn's outer walls. She spent hours collecting the tiny fragments of dead grasses that had found their way into her prison, and weaving them into threads with which to guide drops of rain from outside.

Sometimes she was so thirsty she thought that she could call rain down from the rafters if she only wanted it enough, and she would lie with her back to the dirt, staring up at the dark wood surfaces in yearning.

Never before this had she known want, not so dearly.

For the first time she felt she understood the outcasts who lived in poverty near the edge of the Vale.

In tiny fields crowded in by woods, Gevard Stiller's family had hand-dug furrows for rye, corn, and beets because they had no mule or ox to draw a plow. His sons and daughters had helped once, older children built as broad and sturdy as their father. But one by one, they had all changed over to Sime -- every last one of them save for Jo in a freakish and improbable turn of fate. Even the mother had died, killed by one or another of her Sime children.

Now the mash-kegs lay broken and in disarray, the copper of the piping long since pillaged because there weren't enough left of the family to maintain a constant guard. The fields had gone fallow, overgrown and shrunken-in under the shoulders of the trees. It seemed impossible that a town's worth of booze - the town's only booze - had once been grown in those patchy little hollows.

And Jo Stiller was a wild thing, having been cast away at a young age for fear she would turn Sime, and never fully accepted back. She had never learned how to live in a house and among normal people. Her rules were the rules of the child-pack that marauded and destroyed without knowing why it did so. But which was Jo, unfortunate to be without a home, or fortunate to have survived an unlucky family's curse?

Desirey often dreamed of her own family.

Late in May her father and two oldest brothers would have gone riding for days into the wilderness tracking mustangs, wild cattle and emu. They'd come back weeks later with horns, hides, meat, eggs, and green broke mounts, just in time to start milling the first of the village's summer grain crops. They'd trade for milk, woven cloth, smoked trout, paper, sugar, and other local products. Sometimes, they came back with artifacts found in the Ancient ruins secreted in the most isolated crevices of the hills. Their house was decorated with those artifacts - polished bits of bright steel and colored plastic, fragments of concrete animals, and green boards covered with angular traceries of gold and copper.

Desirey's mother had come from a good family, a lucky family that until Desirey had not produced a Sime in generations. She'd borne eight children for Bane Miller, all of them strong and hardworking and most of them boys. She was famous for her meals, meat of wild cattle boiled with blueberries, juneberry pies spiked with rhubarb and gooseberries, elaborate salads threaded through with variegated leaves and the lavender-colored flowers of society garlic. Famous also for her stitchwork and embroidery -- the Millers wore the finest and most festive clothing, snug and warm.

It would kill Desirey's mother to know what Desirey had become. That is why she had run - not to save her own life, but so that they would never know for sure what had happened. Life was cruel enough without giving people reason to lose hope for the future.

When Desirey had exhausted her attempts at water collection and lay dying slowly and finally in the dust, Jo brought broken bits of trough from what had once been her father's still. Halves of hollow logs, split end to end and then split again when they'd fallen to the depredations of vandals, thieves and wild children. She'd thrown them down from the hole in the roof, like wooden daggers thudding into the earth. There was no pity in her, nor was there kindness. There was only hot fierce white light like a glaring fragment of sun, defying any attempt at anthropomorphism. Most of the time Jo seemed no part human at all, only an animal, savage and complete in itself. And then she would do something like bring the trough. No animal could have thought of that. There must be some vague whisper of humanity in the back of Jo's mind, tormenting that moment-to-moment animal consciousness with urges that seemed entirely contrary to simple survival.

As Desirey scrabbled in the dirt to make places for the troughs, to join the droplets gathered by her threads into tiny streams, she thought of Gevard Stiller. In her thirst-induced delirium, she felt she knew the man who for years had clawed mulch and needles clear of these troughs so that the still could have water, so that his children could have food, so that his family could have some future. Knew him more intimately than anyone had ever known him before.

Desirey killed Gevard Stiller her fifteenth day in the barn.

-----

Jo came often, sometimes once a day, sometimes waiting two or even four days to come again. She crouched on the rooftop, shining brighter than the heart of a forge, dimming all of Desirey's vision to herself and herself alone.

When Jo was there, Desirey hated the barn more for keeping Jo from her than for her own imprisonment.

And Jo asked, each time, "Now?" meaning, will you kill for me today?

If it was one of the bright-times, Desirey would weep, and say she would never kill anyone again, and would beg to be released.

But if it was a time of falling, then Desirey would say yes. Nothing was more awful than falling into that darkness. Nothing.

First she'd killed Jo's father Gevard, and then Markie, a wild youth from a bad family. Next had come Master Burquist, the man who had taught at the schoolhouse back when the children of the Vale had all learned together. Then Father Barnes, the Church of the Purity priest nobody listened to anymore. The last one had been Jans, Sheriff Lanower's second-born son.

Each of them had taught Desirey in his death. First Gevard had taught her of poverty and desperation. Then Markie taught her of the fallacy of young-adulthood-as-safety. Then Master Burquist of the fallacy of maturity-as-strength. Then Father Barnes of the surety of being forgotten. But Jans, Jans Lanower, had taught her that it is possible to want to kill, not just need it.

Once Desirey had loved Jans, had longed to marry him. But now that she was Sime, that would never happen. She had no idea why Jo might have picked Jans to die. And ultimately, that did not matter, only that Jo had chosen. In her hands, with the brilliance of his life beating out against her lips, Jans became something more intimate and immediate and important than any husband could ever hope to be. He became a kill. And now that Desirey had taken him, he could never be taken away from her again.

After each kill her senses came alive again, searingly so, and she slept long and deep and relived the beauty of the outside world in dreams as clear as seeing with her eyes - fairybells, death camas, wild violets, heartleaf arnica, sego lily, fireweed, indian paintbrush. It was as if she had drawn from her kills the last of their contact with the outside world, when she had drawn from them their lives.

Jo had the most cunning and silent ways of bringing them to their deaths.

Some she lured with her own body. Some she tricked, implying that there was copper or cut-stone or even steel hoarded in the barn's depths.

She watched each kill, her presence shining insistently, luridly, coloring everything Desirey did.

In a way, it was like killing Jo over and over again.

-----

It had taken some time to learn how to keep Jo from leaving.

At first, Desirey had been too desperate, too eager. She had rushed Jo's slow words, and Jo had vanished in a flare of furious hurt light.

But then, as the days and days passed, and as the emptiness of the surrounding world and the blackness underlying it crept closer inviting her to fall, she grew to depend on Jo's presence too deeply to risk losing it to impatience. She learned to remain silent, motionless, drinking in the true-light that streamed down from Jo's burning form, and waiting for the words that came one halting syllable at a time. Sometimes the world seemed endlessly stretched, the time between words ticking out into seconds, minutes, an hour. Desirey felt she knew intimately each moment as it passed. She thought that she had never truly understood time until she had come to be Sime, but now took each instant to her as a brother, entire and free-standing. Each in its turn. Unending.

The only time Jo had spoken a full sentence to her in all those weeks was in the beginning, in response to her desperate pleas for water. As Jo had turned to leave, Desirey had cried her name out in anguish, "Jo!"

And Jo had turned back, every part of her writhing like live coals, the hints of a hundred separate unknowable emotions tangled in the quick of her white-orange heart.

"You will call me Johehna," said Jo that day, that hour, spread out over ten minutes of pauses and of the long, drawn out terrible attempt at words. "And I will call you Killer."

Much later, weeks later, after Jans Lanower was dead and his body wedged in shallow burial at the bottom of the barn's cleft with all the others, Jo came one day and she was different, gloriously different. Awe and wonder streamed down upon Desirey, and Desirey drank it in, ecstatic, hypnotized. She had never felt such strong emotions from the one that kept her prisoner.

"Goodbye," said Jo. "Killer."

"Goodbye?" cried Desirey frantically, stunned by the contradiction between the inspiring feelings and the final words. "You're going to shoot me?"

But Jo did not mean to shoot her Killer. Desirey knew that immediately once the words were out of her mouth. There was a different kind of goodbye in the heated vortex that was Desirey's only connection to life and freedom. There was a negation of what Desirey had asked.

"You're going to leave me?" whispered Desirey, suddenly afraid because without Johehna she would fall finally, fall forever into darkness. She was helpless to fend for herself here. There would be no more kills, ever.

Johehna turned, and her finger pointed in the direction of the big mountain, the mountain that belonged to the Wolf, fire shedding off her like illusory plumage. And Desirey realized only then that Jo's entire being was yearning in that direction as if pulled by some irresistible force. In wonder she gazed at Jo, tasting the power of her compulsion, respecting it, understanding it.

In her current form, emotion had paramount force. She could neither deny it or ignore it, whether it came from her or from Jo or from one of her kills. Yes, Jo would be leaving her. Desirey would fall. There was no question.

"But why?" she cried out.

But Johehna was already gone, first in intent and then in physical fact, her feet thumping on the wooden roof and then more faintly through the mountainside, her rays sifting between trees and boulders and finally lost even to Desirey's raw and needing senses.

And she didn't come back, over days and days and finally weeks, and the dark reached up to clutch Desirey and drag her down, and more days passed and she began to descend into a panic as raw and mindless as that which had gripped her when she first became trapped here. And she knew a hunger more paralyzing than any she had yet known save for that first time when she had killed Chep, only this time there was no victim, there was no way to escape to find one, and no one to bring one.

-----

Beyond the gorge in which the barn lay, up farther beyond the nearest edge of the Vale, beyond the village and even farther unto the Vale's very farthest point, lay the Sacred Grove. There rested an ancient artifact no one dared disturb.

It was a flat stone, heavy and broken but still standing upthrust from the forest floor. It was inscribed with words so old and alien that only Master Burquist could read them. And he had read them, patiently and aloud, to any child who dared to ask.

Beyond the Vale of Tears
My beloved Wolf lies
Whose all-seeing Ghost
Seeing into my heart
Must surely weep.

Beyond this Sacred Grove
Lies sorrow's trackless land.
O Lord, I travel onward alone
Save for your Word.

In the olden times, before Desirey or even her mother or grandmother was born, people used to say that a person chased by Simes could go to the Sacred Grove and they would be safe from being killed. But no one believed that anymore; it had been proven inaccurate several times in recent years.

What had not changed was what lay beyond: the stark and stony desolation that stretched upward for endless miles, battered incessantly by blizzards in winter and lightning in summer, scarred and scorched and wind-twisted with only the most tenacious and forgiving of plants and animals able to scratch out a sort of life and those only in its lowest regions. Up higher, nothing grew at all, and snow whirled in fierce gales all year round, pummelling the bare black rock.

In all the spoken history of the Vale, no one had ever braved those heights, not even a fool like Neidham. The legends of what haunted that place were too dire, and the evidence of the eyes too daunting. That Jo would go there at once terrified and compelled Desirey. Sometimes she dreamed of Jo's shining form lighting up the night, penetrating the basalt shadows and illuminating the fellfields and dwarf forests with a fierce and mindless persistence.

Sometimes she dreamed of the Ghost that was said to haunt that place, walking in the form of the Lord of Wolves, summoning hordes of wild things to tear apart intruders, howling a mourning so terrible it could break minds and hearts, whispering truths so damning they could kill by leaching a person's very will to live.

-----

Jo had left a rope coiled upon the top of the barn. Through the barn's insubstantial shadow-substance Desirey could see it there, see that it was tied to a ring near the closed hatch.

In her most desperate moments she was certain someone would come to the barn, anyone. They would drop the rope and climb down it, to get some treasure Jo had promised them or only to explore. Nobody would expect a Sime to be locked for so long in a barn. Jo had proven that.

In her fevered dreams Desirey killed that person, and then she was free because Jo was not there to pull up the rope and seal the opening.

And when she was free, she passed beyond the Sacred Grove in pursuit of Jo, and the Wolf did not harm her because she was already Sime, already dead.

After weeks of having only one hope, and that hope Jo, Desirey could not bear the thought of never seeing her again. Would not pass up any chance to touch Jo with her own hands, Jo who was all fire and heat and molten mindless savagery like crown-fire.

And so for those last and darkest days she lay curled in a bed of earth and listened to the moan of the trees and the claws of the wild roses squealing against the wooden sides of her prison, and she dreamed of having the power to see through trees, and she dreamed of the chase, and she dreamed of killing Johehna.


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