From the author: Christa, an orphan, wants to find out how and why her parents died.
THE WORD FROM FIRE VALLEY
Before I was born, my grandmother told me, the sky was on fire. The earth breathed out smoke that spread throughout the world. The air whistled. The cherry trees shuddered and shed their branches. The jays that lived in them flew through the burning ground while the caterpillars and snakes tore through the center of the earth. There was only heat and flame. The smell of burning flesh and soil. Ground crusted with soot.
When my grandmother told the story, her hands reached high above her head. She wailed and screamed. Her little nose widened and her face puffed up. Her eyelids were burnt red. She looked like she was on fire. She didn't stop talking. It was embarrassing. When she told me the story when I was small, she scared me. I'd run every time she told it. She came after me and told me I'd have to know the story so I could retell it. Now I'm thirteen and I can take it.
Now all that's left is the quiet in Fire Valley. Once in a while, I heard a rumble. But that's all. My grandmother said we're safe here now, the worst has past. I think she's just trying to make me feel better. Since I'm an orphan, I'm like everyone else. I'm like the families of birds, the raccoons, the owls.
Every night when my grandmother slept, I stayed up. The night was full of black fog. The air smelled of burnt wood. Here and there, I saw a candle lit. Overhead, the sky was dark, just sprinkled with stars. The moon was a broad outline. Through my bedroom window I heard the clump. At first the pounding sound was faint. Then it got louder. As it got louder, I felt as though it was inside my head. I saw shadows of people, walking in a line. They wore the same metallic suit and carried an oak stick. I raced out of my room. I ran through the cold, misted ground in my bare feet. By the time I got there they were gone.
Some nights I ran far, so far I saw the fallen spear in front of me. This was the entrance to the Circle Places. I was not allowed to go near the spear. Grandmother told me it was not a spear. But that's what it looked like. It was white, stark, and bare. It reached to the stars. It rested on the ground. Grandmother told me it once stood up straight. You could climb inside it to the top of it.
I thought that if I travelled far enough, I would find out the truth of what happened to my parents. I was so alone, except for my grandmother. She would never answer my questions. Instead she asked me questions, questions I couldn't answer.
“Where were you last night, Christa?" my grandmother asked me. "I went to your room and you were gone. You weren't seeing Grimes again, were you? You've learned enough about the Old Ones. I want you to stay away from the Circle Places. "
When my grandmother looked at me accusingly, her eyes got redder. They eyes were pearl blue, yet they were flame to me. Never could figure it. She must have been beautiful once like my mother was. Now she was tiny, bent over. She wore the same dress over and over. A bright, flowered print. She always wore her eagle pin too on her lapel. She said when I'm older she'll explain what it means.
“I just went out for a minute, Shirley, they were coming through again." My voice was steady. I liked calling my grandmother by her real name.
“You can't stop them. I told you that before. "
“I know I can't stop them. I was curious, that's all. "
“They come from over the bend near the Circle Places." My grandmother pointed to direction of the Circle Places where the sun appears in the morning.
“They never come back," I put in, just to let my grandmother know I wasn't so dumb.
“Don't you go places I tell you not to," she cried at me. "Your parents did that and where are they now?"
I started crying. I couldn’t stop. "I know, grandmother, I thought maybe if I got there I could stop them."
“Don't think so silly, babe."
I sighed. "Who are they, grandmother? Why are they doing it?"
“Fools all of them. The whole world is made of fools. "
“Jacob disappeared." I was still crying; I could barely breathe.
“We tried, sweetie, we tried. He wouldn't listen to us. "
She rubbed my head with her calloused hand.
No matter how hard she rubbed it, I didn't feel better. I ached inside.
We ate together in silence. I picked the turnips, potatoes and carrots so there was plenty of food. My grandmother said the food might be dirty or diactive but it was the only food we had to eat. I never understood what she was talking about.
At night when my grandmother soaked her burning eyes, I'd leave. Grime's house wasn't far. I walked over two hills and into a yellow valley filled with crushed rocks. His house was at the far end of what used to be an apple orchard. Now there were fields of cotton growing there. As I got closer to the house, I could see his sienna fences and uncropped grass. I slipped through his creaking door unnoticed.
“Christa, you here?"
“Yes, Grimes." I walked in the front door. He was reading in front of the lamp. He had all kinds of books there with titles that no one had ever seen.
He looked up. His hair was graying. He only had one front tooth left. He told me all of his back teeth were there. He said he was doing just fine. He wore blue jeans and a shirt. His brown shoes were nearly black with soot. He never dressed like that when he taught school. I asked him only one question about his family. Then I never brought it up again. He was alone like me. He'd lost his wife and daughters. Now I was a daughter to him.
“You got more questions, I bet," he said.
I sat right down in front of him. He had the most comfortable chair. It was padded on the back and it spread out when you leaned back. I could stretch my legs out.
“You got a smoke, Grimes?"
He nodded and pulled out one from his metal case on his bookcase. His books were sealed in little cases. If you touched one, they'd surely disappear like everything else here.
I sucked the cigarette in my mouth. “You made this one, didn't you?
“The others are gone. Forever,” he said.
“You mentioned about the deaths. The killings of the leaders," I puffed on the cigarette.
“You ask too many questions, Christa.”
He stared at me for a moment. He went up to his books shelf and brought down two withered titles. I picked them up. One said “Truth of History."
“The good leaders had to be killed so that the evil ones could take over. It happened over forty years."
“There weren't any more good leaders?"
“Christa, if there were good leaders, would we be here?"
He also made me think. “I guess not."
The smoke tasted good. I sucked on the pointed end. “Why did they do it? It hurt them too?"
“Some people don't think about that. That's how the world was," he said. He brushed his hair behind him. His hair was long and unkempt now.
“Show me the Circle Places."
“I will. Just not tonight."
He nodded. “I don't know why you want to see them. No one goes there any more."
“The Night Tribes do."
"It's their path. They have to."
“Why do they bother?" I tried to puff a circle, but it turned into a winding staircase.
“I don't know."
“You saw the world before didn't you?"
“I was little. It's only a dream to me. I read the books to try to figure it out. I learned about the Old Ones." He lit his cigar. “I don't know that I'm correct."
"I know you're correct, Grimes. You know more than my grandmother. You know more than anyone that's here." I paused. “You can tell me about my father…"
He just stared at me with an empty look.
That night I slept deeply. In my dream world, I chased a big bird. The owl was white and full of himself. I asked him questions and he wouldn't say a word. I followed him through the fog. I felt the clouds on my shoulders and in my hair. The fog was thick and mysterious. The trees fell at my sides as I ran. I was happy, almost ecstatic. Trees as thick as grass. Cherry trees, beech trees and oak trees. Trees I had only read about in books. The owl faced me. His black eyes seared into mine. "Go to the Circle Places,” he said. Only there will you know the truth about the Old Ones."
In my waking dream, I walked back into the house, carrying Petrovak, my kitten. Petrovak had white, cranberry and gray spots all over him. His nose was pink. His hazel green eyes were outlined in black.
“Christa, what you doing with that one-eyed cat?" my grandmother said.
“He's my friend. You said we need friends these days," I petted the kitten. "He needs someone to take care of him."
“What about food?"
“He doesn't eat much."
My grandmother petted him, gently stroking his nose. "Your father liked cats. So did your mother. They knew a lot about felines."
“They were scientists, Shirley. What kind of scientists?"
“I've told you that story many times."
“Tell me again!"
“You were too young to remember, but your mother took you with her on a field survey. She catalogued the plants and animals by the river. And your father was another kind of scientist. A physicist. He knew about the …" My grandmother's voice cracked.
“Did he make them?"
“What were their names?"
"Your mother had the same name as me, and your father was named Bernard. You had a brother too. His name was Jimmy."
“I wish I could have known Jimmy…"
“I wish you could too. You played with him a lot. But he didn't live that long. The air was black the day he died. It covered the earth like a thick blanket. He couldn't breathe. No one could. Your mother was frantic. She was all alone. Bernard was far away working for the war. She did everything to save Jimmy. Lots of people died that day. "
I hated to watch grandmother cry. I wish I hadn't asked so many questions. But I had to ask her one more question. "What was my last name?"
“Last names don’t mean too much now," my grandmother replied. "Yours was Bryson."
“Were there lots of Brysons in the world?"
Grandmother nodded. “There was lots of every name…"
I couldn’t listen anymore. Petrovak sprung out of my arms like a rabbit. I chased him to the closet. He jumped over the shoes and slippers into the box and I could see his white head poke out when I put my hand in to pet him.
“Leave him alone, Christa. The cat's scared," grandmother explained. "He has to be alone to feel safe.”
“No matter what I do he's still scared."
Petrovak stayed in his box all day. Every time I petted him, he licked himself nervously. He jumped at every sound I made. But he was friendlier to me now. He didn't bite me when I tried to pet him.
I ran my hand down his soft fur, softer than cotton bales. He licked my hand and rubbed his head against my palm. I told him how much I missed my mother and father. His pink nose rubbed against my fingers. Maybe Petrovak's ancestors knew my family. In the other room I watched Grandmother soak her eyes. She said they didn’t hurt. But I knew she was lying. She soaked them for hours. And still her eyelids were bright red. I wondered whether my eyelids would look like that when I got older.
“Grandmother, you all right?"
“I feel better now," she turned her head toward me and smiled.
She wasn't telling me something. I hoped I wasn't making her sick. Some days when the sky was bright and heavy, she can't see me at all. I walked by her like a ghost. She'd ask, “Christa, is it you?"
Tears fell down my cheeks. I was so afraid of losing my Grandmother and I was so alone. Maybe she'd be better if we moved out of the valley. Grimes said that Fire Valley wasn't safe. He said we should move away from here. Maybe I could find out where to go from the Circle Places.
I gave my grandmother two more pieces of rolled cotton to put on her eyes. She hugged me saying, “Sweet Christa."
“I'd do more for you if I could, grandmother.”
“You do enough for me already. I don't know what I'd do without you." She rubbed my shoulder a couple of times. “Instead of putting the cotton on her eyes, she wiped mine instead.
That night, after Grandmother was asleep, I saw the Night Tribe passing through. I ran out of the house in my bare feet. I ran out so fast that I scared Petrovak. I felt the lightness of the sky as I passed by the bent trees. The air smelled of stale wood. The branches cut my feet.
I ran so fast I was right behind them. Their metallic bodies shone in the moonlight moving in unison. Their legs were strong. They dug deep into the soft earth. I saw their deep footprints in front of me. When I put my foot into one of theirs, it sunk into the ground. I struggled to pull my foot out. They were gone.
I heard a sound, the sound of an animal, a sound I had never heard before. The sound, a low hiss, echoed from the ground. I ran quickly to Grimes house, afraid to look behind me. I could hear the cotton bolls bellow. Inside the gate, I felt a hand on my shoulder. The smell of old smoke and grog. I couldn't move.
“It's me, Grimes! Let me go!"
“I'll let you go, when you promise to behave!"
“I'm sorry. I had to come. A creature was chasing me."
“You followed the Night Tribe, didn't you?"
“N…Yes…" I broke his grip and faced him. His eyes were lit by the moonlight.
“Take me to the Circle Places."
“I said I would in the future."
“Now…Grandmother's sick. You've gotta help me."
Grimes sighed and folded his arms. He took my hand and we walked through the cotton to the river. On the shore was his boat, made of strange things I had never seen before. There was a shiny stick on one side and a curved clear wood on the other.
“Where'd you get these?" I asked.
“The Circle Places."
I knew then that seeing the Circle Places would answer my questions. I climbed in the boat and looked up at the moon which sliced the river into tiny pieces. By the time the moon set, we would be in the Circle Places. I kicked off my shoes and stretched my legs out. The fallen spear heralded our departure. I slept until the light warmed my eyes.
The lumps of gray rock shone on the sides of the river that wound through the valleys Small trees sprouted from the cracks. Squirrels made their nests in the hollows.
Grimes pointed to them. “Those were the great rivers of the Old Ones. Some of them wound in circles."
“How could that be? There is no water. "
The swish of the water against the boat soothed me. The bubbles wove into wreathes as we moved. I stuck my hand in the water. It was warm. The earth was still hot.
“Don't do that, Christa!"
I yanked my hand out.
The sunlight was coming from the east, the direction we were traveling, and a faint glow from underneath the belly of the earth. Time passed quickly. As we entered the Circle Place, a bird floated overhead, a bird of prey with a great wingspan. His eye caught mine. I had done the right thing by coming.
In the great distance, all I could see was a white powder that coated everything. The wind sucked it up and blew it out into the sky. Before I could say a word, Grimes handed me a mask from the bottom of the hull.
“You must wear this," he said and put one over his mouth.
We cast the anchor near the shore and got out. The world was a great desert here. The white powder caught the wind and rumpled like wrinkled cloth. The sky was musty, dirty. There were few birds or trees. I wondered whether the ground still burned.
“Put on your shoes, Christa," Grimes said. "No bare feet here."
Grimes must have been some teacher. Nothing I did ever have past him. I couldn't fool him like I could my grandmother.
When I stepped out into the powdered world, my feet felt as if they were on air. It was the world of ghosts. Silent. The smell of death. We walked for a short distance. Everything looked the same. There were crumbled stones everywhere coated with white powder. Some had words on them. Big words. Others had pictures. Pieces of metal were wound into bunches like a great vine, spilled on the ground, tossed by some great force.
This was a great place, filled with wonders that I had never imagined. Who were these people? What happened to them all? Grimes were silent the whole time. He seemed awed by the experience, though he had been here many times.
“Where did you find the books?"
“Further up yonder," he replied.
I tugged on my mask, feeling myself sweat underneath. The sun was clear, a bright eerie light like no light I had ever seen before.
“Keep you mask tight, Christa. We're going into the worst areas."
Grimes grabbed my hand tighter, just as I thought of going off on my own to look at one of the mounds. I read the letters "emorial." What did it mean? There were others. What was "Oln"?
We walked beside the crumbled pond. It was long, majestic. Maybe it had held a garden of turnips and lettuce. Now it was silent, empty. I shivered with fear as we began to climb the steps, which were broken into small stones, caved into each other. As we climbed higher I could see the severed head of the leader with one arm. He had been seated on a giant chair. The Old One had a beard, just as I imagined he would. He'd know where to take my grandmother.
Grimes just shook his head. "I've searched the books to find out. I don't know."
“Did he start the fire?"
“They all did."
I walked ahead of Grimes, wading through the powder which became thicker and deeper. I bent down to pick up a twisted shiny, branch. Before I could touch it, Grimes cried out, "Don't touch the metal, Christa."
I pulled my hand back quickly. I figured Grimes knew more than he was letting on.
The branch was a small metallic arm. I peeked inside the room, which was like a honeycomb and saw rows of metallic men. There were dozens of them. They looked the same with their beady eyes and claws for hands. I could see my reflection in the walls. I looked red and puffy.
I saw a gray temple in the distance and ran. Out of the powder it stood, a giant building unbroken. My hair was thick with dust as I ran. I heard Grimes calling my name behind him. I kept running. As I got closer I could see the puddles of mud around it. I ran around them, staying on the solid ground.
It was there on the broken marble that I saw the name “Bernard Bryson” I peered into the marble, putting the letters together. But no words formed. Finally, I discovered a unbroken metal plate, curved and bent. “In honor of Bernard Bryson. The physicist who unleashed the power of the universe."
I knew that whatever my father had done, the world loved him for it. Maybe somebody else had the power of the universe too. I sighed. Grimes was behind me.
“What'd you find, Christa?"
I nodded and pointed to the sign.
Grimes gasped and stepped backwards. He grabbed my hand.
“What's wrong?" I asked. "My father wasn't one of the evil ones, was he?"
“Your father was a good man. He just did his job."
Grimes put his hand on my shoulder. I looked up at his sad face and sighed.
I started sobbing. I couldn’t stop myself. Then I ran away from him.
“Christa!” cried Grimes, running after me. “Don’t go there. It’s dangerous.”
I kept running and finally felt my feet sink into the earth. I screamed and tried to pull myself up. I was stuck. When I kicked the mud sucked me down further.
“Help me!” I screamed.
A moment later Grimes was a few feet away. If he stepped any closer he’d be sucked down too.
He sat down on his stomach and reached for me with his hand. His forehead was covered with sweat.
I stretched mine as far as I could. It wasn’t far enough. Then he moved closer to me. . Finally, my hand met his. He kept pulling on it. I don’t know where he had all the strength from. I thought he was as weak as my grandmother.
The next moment, I was on the ground, my legs covered with dirt and mud. I couldn’t stand up.
“Christa,” said Grimes. “I know you’re upset. But this is all past now. We have a new world to build. That’s more important than what happened before.”
“I hate my father for what he did!”
“Hate is a waste of energy,” said Grimes. He picked me up and hugged me. It felt good. Then I understood what he had said. I looked up and saw the sun breaking out of the clouds. It was a new day.
This story originally appeared in Jake's Monthly Anthology.