Looking back at that morning it is easy, now, to see where the changes that have wrought my life began, though I little knew the portent of those events at the time, of course. How could I? I was eighteen - just eighteen.
It started, as so many days did then, with my father’s anger; his big frame filling the doorway of my little room, his hands gripping the jamb, a snarl on his bearded, fearsome face.
“Do you never wake up? Do you? I’ve been waiting for you in the top field since daybreak, boy. Do you see how high the sun is now?”
I turned over with a groan which evoked a sympathetic creak from my little cot, forcing my eyes to stay open as I directed my answer at the wall: “I was working late last night.”
“Really? So was I! So was I, Cassix! We all work late in spring. We all work hard because the seed must be in the ground before the north wind comes and we cannot sow a field in half a day! Now get on your worthless feet and start to do your share!”
I should have been ready for the crack of his stave across my head - I should have, but I wasn’t. A welt of pain shot through my ear and a galaxy of stars glittered as I bit back my cry of hurt. “Alright, alright! I’m coming, Pa. I’ll be right there. I will.”
I hoisted myself to a dizzy, unwilling crouch upon the bed. “I’m sick.”
“Sick?” Incandescent, my father raised his voice to a shout. “Sick! Sick is all we hear about, boy! Sick is what we are - sick of you!”
“Dag! Dag, dear, please....” In the background, my mother’s voice, pleading, placating. More than once that still, gentle voice had saved me from worse hurt, I think; injury or maybe even death.
“Don’t trouble yourself, child.” Pa growled. “Treska is already up there. He, at least, appreciates the need for two hands on the drill. You tend the sheep until we come down tonight. Take them up to the riverside pastures - I don’t think even you could fuck that up. But do not delude yourself that you’ve got away with this: there are ditches to be cleared up there. You can do those in darkness, so you can do them after we’ve finished.”
He stormed out of the house, past my mother, muttering: “Feed him and kick him outside, Alanee, will you? Make sure he doesn’t just mooch around the yard all day. Useless.....” His words faded into distance. I watched him through my window stamping across the farmyard towards the lane that led to the far hill.
I shook my head, trying to clear the brilliant little specks of stars which lingered still, remnants of the light display brought on by my father’s assault. Then I rose to unwilling feet.
My mother, tall and in her own way a little forbidding, greeted me in our main room, tutting as she inspected the red wield left by pa’s stave.
“Why must you always be the one to make him angry?” She sighed. “I’ll get a cold compress for that.”
“He picks on me.” I said. “He picks on me at every opportunity.”
“And at every opportunity you give him cause! He is anxious because the north wind will blow today. How can you stay in bed so late?”
“You could have wakened me!” I accused her.
“Oh, I could? And who would milk the goats then, and feed the poultry, and tend to the barns? You are not a child. You are old enough and clever enough to get yourself up in the mornings, my son.”
She could be severe when she wanted to be. Her bright blue eyes could darken, her forehead furrow, sending those flaxen brows of hers into a frozen arch of censure, like the twin entrances to halls of judgement. And I knew, of course, that she was right.
I loved my mother - an obvious statement, maybe, but especially poignant to me as I look back. I loved her for many things, the sum of which made her much more than just my mother, and not least because she was the foil between my father and me in my early years. She stood between us so often, and her long, elegant back took so many of the verbal, if not the physical blows. All about her reminded of past beauty, a figure of bearing and grace; yet she was farmer too. She had strength beneath the dignity, muscle behind the poise. On summer mornings I would watch her drift about the house she and my father built, wearing the thin white shift that was her habit since they began wearing clothes, the pair of them - since my brother Treska and I came to a certain age. The film of web-silk swept about her like a mist, a veil which even then in her later years offered temptations to my depraved young mind.
I took the shock of cold moss-pad as she pressed it to my ear. “Hold that there. I’ve left you some bread and tsakal on the stove. Don’t take too long.”
My mother took a trug from the alcove by our main door, then departed - to collect eggs, I assumed, from the forest edge. I wandered into the kitchen, discovered bread still warm on the griddle with a pot of hot tsakal bubbling beside it. Breakfast was always much the same, always good. Alone in the house I could savour it, sitting by the big table as I allowed my thoughts to stray. Chickens squawked in the yard, goats snickered busily. The sun beat down from a cloudless sky. Selei was out there, wandering naked through the trees of the lower forest, plucking the blue berries she enjoyed so much and sampling them as she walked. Selei, cool and incomparably lovely, who walked in secure certainty of my eternal love.....
“Are you still here?” My mother’s voice was sharp as an otter’s bark. “Cassix, stop dreaming, will you? Get those sheep out before your father comes back again, or you’ll be needing a lot more than a cold compress, my boy!”
Dispiritedly, I dragged myself out into the yard. A breath of warm wind greeted me - the northerly had already begun to blow up. Down through a small host of clucking, indignant fowl, past the barns to my left - the home barn for the goats and chickens in winter; the food store; then finally the largest, in which the machinery (father built all the machines by hand) shared company with a forge. Here, over a white fire we fashioned our hard-won iron from a small mine nearby.
On my right, below the house, was our garden. A large plot bordering our path to the river, tilled for the most part, with spring seed nestling in the sun-blessed tilth; seed for green vegetables, for herbs, and for roots that would swell with the passing of summer. We grew flax here, even a little tobacco for those rarer pleasures.
A raucous choir of sheep crammed the home field, which stretched across the far end of the yard. They were sixty in number, this flock my parents had nurtured in their earlier years here. Pa was a skilled shepherd, but Treska, his son, had proven to be even better. Once my brother was old enough he was given responsibility for those whose husbandry he had learnt at his father’s knee, and he had taken that same husbandry to another level. The ewes which, at first, had never lambed more than a single kitten each spring were now lambing later and some were bearing twins. What was more, they were bigger, healthier and altogether better tempered than the rather scrawny examples I recalled from my infancy. Their fleeces were snowy, their feet rarely rotted, we scarcely ever lost a lamb. And they were anxious to be freed.
I could hardly blame them for their demanding cries. The home field, whilst protecting them somewhat from predators, was over-grazed. They wanted the spring grass. As I approached they huddled against the hurdles beside the yard, bleating so loudly I was fearful my father would hear them from the top of the farm and berate me again for my lateness. I was late: the sun was already close to its zenith.
Once over the gate, I ploughed my way through the jostling heat of Treska’s flock, letting them follow me as I trudged up the steep slope to the eastern gate. There I released them, a bundling, happily chaotic horde that rocked the posts as they hustled between them and out into lush meadow: here they would have been happy enough to graze but there was still another, higher level yet to go. Maybe I admired, as I walked all four acres of that field, leading my skipping, rejoicing followers up to the south-eastern end, the dexterity and determination of my angry father and my resilient mother when they cleared the trees that had once been here, a feat that might have broken lesser than they. There were five such fields where once there had been only forest, and without the strength of their horses or the craft of the Miroveti villagers who lived by the river there would have been no farm, no heritage for my brother and I.
The wind blew at my back - a little more swiftly now, so I could imagine the dust rising about the drill as Pell, our brood mare drew it across the field she and I had ploughed together last winter. I thought of my father and brother struggling in the heat to load the hopper of Pa’s heavy iron invention with our ragged seed. I thought of the effort of guiding the machine to straightness in the blinding cloak of that fine dust as it invaded throat and lungs, and I admitted to a little selfish gladness that I had been late in bed that day. If I lifted my eyes to my left I might see a light brown mist blowing from the hilltop. A small reward for a head wound, I thought.
A last gate before my fleecy friends could gain the south-east meadow with all its luscious temptations. Here was the one part of our little farm which needed no irrigation, for its southern margin bordered the river, giving the grass as much natural water in the soil as we could wish. This was always prime grazing, and the dense undergrowth of the forest edge formed a fence at the eastern end, the cliffs of the river gorge a further natural boundary to the south. It was not so thoroughly cleared, this field. Peat bog intruded upon its north-eastern corner - low-lying swamp extending along the path of an irrigation ditch, a part of which might have been a river tributary once. Father had built a water-wheel here to feed his irrigation system for the top field, making use of the old watercourse. In all our land there was much which might have been once, but was no more, for ours was a damaged world. There was still work to be done here among our richest pasture, in what Pa regarded as a progressive expansion. His vision for the farm would follow the river, providing fresh grazing for us, his sons, to pass on to our children. One day, he was determined, the next quarter-mile of forest would be laid low. His vision was not mine.
My view for the future was less logical, less explicable. Yet it was compelling beyond measure. The south-east meadow was one of my favourite places because here, from the highest point of the field, I could see south and west for many miles. High upon the cliff top above the gorge where the river ran fiercest, I would sit for hours sometimes, just gazing across the fertile belt which followed the river towards the barren lands beyond.
Years ago - before I was born, my mother once told me, our world was ruled by a great and splendid city. A rich and verdant land was tended by millions of people - beings just such as she and I, harvesting crops and fishing for Dap in great lakes and seas of water, flying from place to place in metal birds. Her eyes would fill with tears as she spoke of the great plains of somewhere she called the Hakaan, and all the friends she had there - her village, her life when she moved to live in that glittering city, had all been very different then. She had been a courtier; she and Sala, her friend, had feasted upon the wealth of the city. Those had been days of splendour, she said, but they were fed by falseness and cant; and retribution, when it came, was like a curtain of fire which destroyed it all.
Now nothing remained of that glorious city, or of the lush, fertile land which once fed it. All the world, all but our one small piece, had been reduced to barren ash - burned so hotly even the mountains themselves were cracked open. Fate had decreed that this tiny corner should survive so we could have the chance to put aside sin and luxury and start again. There was no water beyond our one small stretch of river, there were no people save for ourselves and the family of her friend Sala who lived a little higher up that same river. We were alone in this world and the task bestowed by one greater than us was to renew it.
This was not such an enormous concept for a young child. Why should he not believe that he was somehow unique, that the limits of his universe were as his parents told him? Yet for some reason, even in my youngest days, I doubted. Although Treska seemed happy with this history I could not accept that there was nothing beyond the sea of grey ash which surrounded us, that we were a solitary island on a completely barren and meaningless planet. There were wrongs about it, that explanation, which would not ring true for me, even then.
So when I stood upon that height with the north wind howling at my back, and I looked out over the grey infinity swirling and dancing before me like a billion ghosts as the gale stirred it into life, I saw as though through a curtain something beyond my mother’s knowledge. What was more, I believed I could hear it calling to me, beckoning me. It was not forever, it seemed to tell me. This was not all there was.
On such days as this, with my back to that furious gale, my mind was full of that grey infinity, and my heart was longing for something lost to me, something I could not fathom, then.
He must have seen what was happening from a half-mile distant, from the top field.
“Cassix! Cassix! Drive them back! Drive them back, Cassix!”
I was only vaguely aware of those cries, shouted above the wind, at the time. Now I remember them; they come to me in dreams, and they will never leave me.
“Cassix! For Habbach’s sake!”
My brother running. His feet scrabbling frantically through the tall grass.
“The sheep, Cassix! The sheep!”
Ah, how I remember! In the gale, the same gale that blasted my ears, scoured my scalp with its anger, the ashes of the barren lands rising, whipped into whirls of furious mist that snapped at the heavens like rabid dogs. Such was their fury I wanted to reach out to them, for they had so many frustrations I could share. They spoke to me of injustice, of harm. They cried for release!
Then my brother’s hand grabbing my shoulder, spinning me around. “Cassix! What have you done?”
Until then, until Treska made me look, I swear I had neither seen nor heard the flock. I heard them now. Driven by the wind, frightened perhaps by its intensity, Treska’s precious animals were huddled at the edge of the cliff. Pressing forward, one by one, they were tottering on the brink of the precipice, losing their footing. Two lay dead already, down there at the river’s edge. Another was falling as I watched, flaying at empty air, crying piteously just once before its brains were dashed out by the rocks.
I acted then of course; too late, but as swiftly as I could. Together my brother and I ran to put ourselves between the creatures and the cliff-edge, shouting and swearing, forcing them back; and Treska as always, though his face was drowning in tears, calming them, settling them.
We drove them back towards the low meadow wordlessly. When at last they were peacefully grazing, Treska said with bitterness in his voice: “You had better retrieve the meat. We’ll need it.”
“Pa said I was to watch them.” I nodded towards the flock.
“And did you?” Treska would not look at me. He knew what was to come. He knew how hard it was for me to keep my guilty hatred within bounds, to keep my fists at my side. But something that was within him - that lived within us both - urged him on. “Patra was the first to fall! I saw her go, my Patra! Do you even care?”
“Patra, Patra, Patra!” I made my tongue dance around the name, sneer it, deride it, spit it out. “Your darling bloody sheep!”
“Yes!” Treska rounded on me. “My darling, my dear, dear Patra! Patra - I worked three seasons, and Pa for I don’t know how many lambings before me, to get a ewe that would twin every year! And now you’ve destroyed her. So now we have to begin again!”
“It’s not my fault! I didn’t make them jump off the bloody cliff!”
“You didn’t stop them, either!”
My blood was my ruler now: rising within me, boiling in my own peculiar vat of culpability. I struck him at once - hard - across the skull. He turned away, holding his head in his hands, and with all my force I slammed my other fist into his back so his chest resounded with the impact. His breath fled his body and he fell, my sanctimonious, fresh- faced favourite of his family brother. And as he lay gasping for air I trod with all my weight upon his stomach.
“Be careful,” I warned his staring, terrified eyes; “or I will drive them all off the fucking edge!”
The path to the foot of the gorge was treacherous and narrow; a busy river, running right beside it, would take no prisoners in its rush to an ocean somewhere that neither I nor my brother had ever seen. Down there no sun ever shone, and the moss-slick rocks could whip your feet from beneath you at the slightest error in your stride. I flensed the tragic carcasses in silence, my knife clashing bone in echoes around the grim cliffs, and if furious thoughts had an echo they would have resounded too. There were many trips to be made that afternoon, careful step upon careful step with the weight of bloody meat about my shoulders; many more to be made the following morning. Exhaustion is anger’s cure. By the time the sunset saved me I was tired enough to welcome the river’s embrace should it choose to take me, and the hatred kindled by my guilt had guttered and died.
This, Pa - my father - knew. He knew me in all my moods; and he could best me in a fight even yet, so I was always reminded: I was never too old for a beating.
“What have you done, Cassix?” He stood at the doorway of our home, his hazel rod grasped whitely in his right hand. “Can you see what you have done - to the farm; to the land?”
Once, my mother said, he was tall and slender, with the skin of an angel. His eyes had not that squint, his cheeks and brow none of those creases that are born of years exposed to the cruelty of the wind. He stood straight, she told me, when she knew him first; not bent at the hip as now, and he was kind: strong, and kind, and warm of heart.
“I brought most of the meat to the drying house, Pa. I’ll fetch the rest at first light.”
“Yes. Yes, you will.” Few would see as I saw, the glint of needles through those slitted eyelids. Few would hear his voice as I heard it. “And you will eat none of it. None of it, Cassix - do you understand? For what you have done, this is my price. Bread for a month; nothing more.”
I did as I always did: I internalised the punishment. He would hurt me tonight, but I would not show it - never show it.
“What does it take, boy? What will make you feel something - anything?”
“Feel what?” I asked quietly, meeting his stare.
“Feel what - compassion for your brother, perhaps? Sorrow for our loss? A little contrition?”
“So I should feel contrite, now?” If I did I would never let him see. Pa had not seen how the loss to the flock occurred, up there on the hill. He had heard only Treska’s account, and he had judged me without asking for mine.
“I want you to feel the pain we feel, boy.”
“Get on with it, then.”
Ma would be in the kitchen, covering her ears to the swish of the cane, to cries I would never make. Treska would sit by the fire, rocking on his heels while he poked at the little lizards that lived between the hearth-stones. Pa’s stave of hazel would thrash across my shoulders until his arm spasmed, and my blood would drip steadily to the dust below the step.
“Are you sorry, boy? Are you sorry now?” He would cry. I would look him in his eyes, and say nothing; and he would see I had won as I always did. If I was sorry; if I had regrets, he would never know.
When I was beaten, which was quite often, I was in the habit of seeking refuge in the Miroveti village for the night. There, beside the river at a bend where the Dap fish gathered a small semi-circle of mud-walled huts clung to the forest edge, homes to creatures who, my mother once told me mysteriously, had been ‘gardeners to her master’. The Miroveti were not creatures in our image. Clothed only by fair, fine hair that was silken to the touch they had long, shuffling legs and dangling arms with delicate hands and fingers that could pluck a single shoot from a growing bunch of a thousand without harming one strand of root. Their faces, sculpted into receding foreheads and protruding jaws, were made gentle by soft, depthless eyes that, should you be caught by them, could offer you all the wisdom of a thousand years in a single stare. They had been so much a part of my growing, these gentle, golden-haired ones, that I thought of them more as the kind of parents it seemed my own mother and father could never bring themselves to be. Neither anger nor fear ever flowered behind their wide, innocent eyes, through which they saw the world as a canvas for their colours, a place to be cultivated in rich greens and gold - a place to be healed.
From the Miroveti I learned to love and venerate the land. By their tutelage I found my life’s work in growing and changing, taking the seed from a plant and altering it so each replanting brought a different sapling child that could live where its mother could not, could feed those its father could not. Their ways and their sayings had taught me the rest and contentment that comes with permanence, a sense of being at one with creation. I learned their language in infancy; I drew my own first plant-child from the soil before I was seven summers old. For all I know it thrives still - a proud tree by now, and I hope that it bears the fruit it was created for.
Pasc the old one, his fine long hair turned white with his years, was my constant companion in those days. He it was who showed me the Making, how to fashion new from old by the power of thought. First the need: he showed me the creature: “Bring to your mind this lowly one, this frightened dweller on the forest floor - do you see him?”
And sure enough, an image of a tiny deer-like creature would spring into my mind, stretching for leaves from the lower branches of trees: delicate hooves, a striped camouflage, the enlarged eyes of one who lives in darkness. “I see him.”
“His food is scarce, his enemies are many. There in the darkness his people will die. So this child (he would make a bowl with his big hands) will grow in the meadows far from the trees. This will bring him into the light, where he and his people can thrive.” I watched spellbound as there, in the dark sanctity of his palm where there had been nothing before, a minute spoor - a tiny black speck of life - appeared.
Within a cycle of the moon that speck would be a seed; within the year a new, hitherto unknown growth; destined in generations to come to entice Pasc’s sad little animal from the forest and give it a new home.
Sadly, although the Miroveti’s art worked so miraculously upon the land around them, they could do nothing for themselves. The generation of children that played so noisily, so happily upon the village compound the day my mother arrived was the last. No more Miroveti were born after that day.
Why? Ma would say it was because they had performed the tasks their maker planned. They had outlived their usefulness. For myself I believe otherwise: I believe my father’s philosophy, which was to till the land and cultivate it for food, caused their rush into extinction. His planned fields, his gathering of animals from the wild and fencing them in, while good sense from our human point of view, were anathema to the mission of the Miroveti, which had always been to generate a wild, balanced harvest every creature of the earth could share. From the day Pa slaughtered his first sheep Pasc never came near to him again.
There were several empty huts in the village now, for the Miroveti were growing old, and one by one when their time came they wandered away into the deep forest, never to return. It was a solemn place, one suited to my mood in those times. Silosech, the female I called my grandmother, would bathe my wounds with that special magic in her hands until the pain no longer troubled me, then she would take me in her arms as if I were a child, cradling me until I slept. Silosech was not human, she could never be, but she was the only one who had ever taken me in their arms this way. Within my memory my mother never did. Silosech was the only one for whom I would cry, and, man as I was, I cried that night.
That night - the night after the sheep fell, though I do not recall exactly why - I decided to stay and make my home within the village. I would not return to my parents’ house. Perhaps I felt that with the onset of manhood it was time I existed alone; or my resentment of my father was now too great to share his roof, or perhaps (and this, I am ashamed to say is my honest belief) I feared what I might do to my brother. Treska, though, would give me no peace. He visited my dreams again and again as I slept:
“Cassix! Cassix! Drive them back! Drive them back, Cassix!”
Had I heard him? Did I ignore him, hoping his precious sheep would die? Was there a perverse pleasure in seeing his beloved Patra reduced to a bloody mess upon the rocks?
“Cassix! Cassix! Drive them back! Drive them back, Cassix!”
After so unquiet a night it was easy to rise early. I set about the business of cutting up the remaining carcass with energy a little renewed. My family were only just stirring as I gaffed a last rack of ribs in the drying house, so by leaving the skins to stretch for later I was able to strike out across our pasture without encountering anyone. Yesterday’s fateful gale blew with renewed vigour, flaying my skin with dust as I headed north this time, uphill to the top field.
Beyond the summit of this first hill our farm ended, as abruptly as the fertile margin of the river to the south. Today the wind blew dervishes of ash at my face and I could see nothing but I knew that here the wild land began again, grey and infertile. Endless? Or was there - could there be - another river, another valley like ours? When I challenged my parents with such things they said simply that ours was the only river - here was the only place. Our valley was our world and there was nothing but the promise of pain beyond it. Pa would simply nod towards the lifeless vista: “More of that.”
There was a range of mountains out there, far away. On calm days I would look towards them and wonder. We lived beside a river that flowed just one way - water from somewhere, going somewhere. Where? Ma told me to think of it as a gift, but I wanted more information than my parents gave.
In the trough between our lands and the barren wastes a sad little gully was the margin of irrigation; fed by the water wheel at the foot of the gorge where the river ran fastest. The next hill was just too high and too far for the strength of the system to carry, and so demanding of attention was it, this last ditch, that we left shovels and dredging tools of various kinds there permanently. Ash blown by the gale had blocked the flow of water. I spent most of my hours until noon clearing it.
By midday the winds had abated somewhat, so rather than return to my parents’ house I followed the ditch on its route back to the river. In spite of the slender thread of water contributed by the ditch our land barely held its own against a constant ingress of grey dust, and the grass was poor here; scant tufts of coarse, obstinate stuff spurned by our animals. All the grazing, the growing of crops and therefore all the farming, concentrated upon the far side of the hill. My family never bothered with this hinterland: they were content to maintain their boundary - this distance from the river the land we had was land enough.
Yet down in a sheltered hollow where the ditch reached the forest edge, in a place where my family never came, I kept a small garden of my own. Beneath the first trees where there was still sun enough for the seeds and experiments I called my plant-children to thrive, I had diverted the ditch’s water to feed a small plot and here, out of reach of my father’s constant summons, I nurtured them - a little attention each day; sometimes, when I could, for hours at a time. They were different, my children: not grasses with seeds to grind for flour, nor burly, great leaved monsters for the pot, but smaller, sweeter creatures with purposes of their own. Children with roots that would fatten and ripen, or seed-pods so large they bore flesh - flesh that was delicious to taste. I had laboured for years in this place, using the skills Pasc showed me to hone and fashion the wild plants of the forest into these new shapes. They were, I could almost say, my life.
This day the ash had intruded, detaining me for some little while, cleaning leaves, weeding out unwelcome invaders. So lost was I in this work I did not notice how far the sun had crossed the sky until a first evening chill brought pimples to my bare skin. Was it an evening chill or something more - something which warned of danger? I paused in my work and looked up.
Treska was standing on the hill behind me. I do not know how long he had been there, but I do know that suddenly the goose bumps on my flesh were palpable. I tried not to allow my alarm to show in my voice: “Brother?”
He made no reply.
“So you know of this place.” I said, turning my back on my garden and climbing out of the trees towards him.
“Had you thought to keep it secret?” He replied. “I’ve known of it for years.”
“And you’ve never asked me about it? Can I show you, then, what I do here?”
Treska laughed. “It’s perfectly clear what you do! I have seen! You’re trying to imitate the Miroveti.”
“Is that so wrong?” I did not know why I should be perplexed by the unpleasant edge to his voice, but I was nonetheless. After all, when we last parted he had been lying on the ground gasping for breath.
“It is when you so obviously can’t do it. It is when you attempt to emulate their foolish obsession with useless plants that do not produce. Those things are abominations!” He walked away, as though I was to assume that the subject was closed. “Anyway, Pa’s been looking for you and he’s pretty mad. Have you been here all day?”
I caught up with him. “Those ‘things’ as you call them could feed us all one day. There is a root growing there that could make good animal feed and take a lot less space than hay for the winter. There is a fruit that is not poisonous, but very sweet. It is good to eat.”
Treska seemed in no mood for listening. “And what do ‘swollen roots’ take, Cassix? Water - gallons and gallons of water! We do not have gallons and gallons of water, nor will we for the foreseeable future. It’s hard enough keeping up the irrigation levels as it is!” He shook his head. “If you really have these skills why don’t you use them sensibly? Larger heads of seed for our grain, for example. Now that would be useful. Meanwhile, in the real world, I’ve just done your day’s work - something I seriously do not owe to you.” He turned his back on me, leaving me to return to the family house alone. I followed slowly, keeping a distance and wondering as I walked at the uneven, almost manic tenor of his voice. It was something I had not heard before.
The home where I was raised was built by my Pa’s own hand; a substantial log cabin fashioned from forest trees, which he erected upon higher ground a half-mile from the Miroveti village. When I asked him why he had put such a distance between our house and those of the Miroveti he told me it was because the river might flood sometime, and I was puzzled because of all the things that controlled our small world, the flow of the river was absolute: though faster or slower at times it never rose or fell more than a few inches. Later, Ma told me the real reason. The Miroveti would be gone one day, she said, and when they were Pa was going to build a dam across the gorge that would flood the whole of the lower valley. I was impressed with that scheme, especially because Pa had calculated the height of the water after his dam so accurately as to put our home precisely on the shore.
Originally just the one room, the log cabin had been added to over the years until there were four separate rooms: a kitchen, two bedrooms and a space where everything else happened. This room had a big table at its centre, chairs and a hearth where a fire always burned. I found Pa sitting at the table. “There’s bread in the kitchen.” He growled at me. “Where have you been?”
I nodded, went through to the kitchen. A loaf of homemade black bread waited on the block.
“Where’s Ma?” I asked.
“Up in the yard, picking peas. Answer my question.”
“I cleared the top ditch today.” I said. “That’s all.”
“Well, you’ve skins to dress tonight. Treska doesn’t have to do your work.” He seemed enervated. All the aggressive energy had left him. There were times, in those later years, when he showed the scars of a lifetime of labour. “Tomorrow we’re going to meet up with Zess in the high forest. He’s seen wild cattle there. They’ll provide meat for the winter.”
Zess, Sala’s enigmatic husband, ran the ‘other farm’ - a cultivation carved out of the forest further up the valley. He and his wife canoed down-river occasionally on visits, and when they did they brought Selei, their daughter, with them, while Magda, their elder child, stayed behind to look after their livestock while they were gone.
There was a difference of two summers in our ages, yet for as far back as I could remember Selei and I were friends. As we grew and whenever we could we took the opportunity to walk together among the reeds at the riverside, dive from the Prophet’s Rock above the white water or spend the rainy hours watching and learning from the Miroveti in their huts. She was tall; graceful even in those early years, a beauty which bloomed in her as she reached her time for growing and even when we were apart there was never distance between us. Magda? Magda was practically a stranger to us. A dark and gloomy child, she preferred to stay at home and learn husbandry from her mother: if we offered play she would refuse, claiming that in her belief life was too brief for idleness, and we should find ourselves better things to do. Selei was the mirror image of her mother: Magda was her father’s child.
As Selei and I grew in years it became plain to us both that our parents did not intend us to be together; a process which began with excuses to separate us: ‘Selei has to spend more time at the farm’ or ‘you have the top field to plough’ expanded into explicit warnings. ‘It isn’t right for you two to be alone together’ and finally: ‘You are promised to Magda - Selei is to be Treska’s wife’.
This cruel pronouncement came from my mother in the summer of Selei’s fifteenth year, after a visit from Zess’s wife and her younger daughter. It was hopeless to intervene in these collusions between my Ma and Sala, they existed whenever they were together: a closeness between them that no-one, not even my father, could break. Withdrawal to quiet places, walks into the forest, conspiratorial smiles and whispers, the touching and holding of hands were idiosyncrasies my father seemed prepared to accept - he never questioned them; while I, in my youth and innocence, was merely curious. Later, I was to regard their relationship with deeper suspicion.
I have said that Selei equalled her mother in loveliness. That was not quite true. Selei surpassed her mother. She had that gift of youth, that optimistic innocence the years had stripped from Sala, and though my mother told me Sala was a great beauty once, admired by all who knew her I saw only a shadow of that past, remoulded by an unforgiving forest farm in hardened, creviced skin and eyes sunken behind dark rings of care. For all that, she possessed qualities of perception Ma lacked, as well as an ability to plan an aspect of a future my family seemed content to leave in the hands of fate. So her visits, whether social or not, were always either constructive or destructive, and the designs emanating from them would often shape our working lives for months to come.
This visit was different. I shall explain why.
On a hot afternoon in the spring of my eighteenth year when Selei and I were already subject to constant scrutiny by both her parents and mine, we met at a little clearing by the river which had become our trysting place whenever we could steal an hour away from their protective stares. These times were hard won, even harder to co-ordinate: I might often make the trip upriver at a time we agreed upon our last meeting, only to find she was detained, or simply unable to slip away - she might do the same. But for the one in three or four attempts when we succeeded there were precious hours to share!
They were innocent too, those afternoons spent laughing and talking together, playing at friendship while all the time sensing the presence of some greater, stronger force between us. This threatening cloud, though we did not see it as such, had come much closer this year.
I arrived late, eager because it had been a long time - a whole winter had passed - since our last meeting. My father had detained me with a task and the sun was long past noon, so I was delighted to see Selei’s little boat hauled up on the foreshore, though I could see no sign of Selei herself. I landed quietly, almost reverently, unwilling to disturb the scents and sounds of that exquisite place, then stretched out upon the grass, allowing my hard-used bones to ache in that gratifying way that comes with first rest. I may have slept.
I was stirred by sounds from the foreshore, as of a boat shifting on the gravel, and of course I sat up quickly, almost expecting to have been discovered - to see an angry parent standing there.
Selei’s unclothed body was bending over her boat to retrieve the chamois smock she usually wore. I should have looked away at once, but I could not. In the few months of winter she had grown to her womanhood and this was the first time I had seen her naked since we were slips of children; my first glimpse into the reality of all I had imagined, time after time, alone in my cot. The curve of her back, the slenderness and fragility of her limbs, the way her small breasts quivered slightly as they moved with her captivated me. I was frozen. Then, as if the intensity of my stare had sent out some subconscious message she startled like a young deer primed to run, an act of such elegance in itself as to stir something in me, something that was new, yet not entirely new - something expected, something undeniable.
Selei said, simply: “Oh!” She hid herself with the smock for a moment; then, laughing at her own embarrassment, arranged the garment so she might slip it over her head, allowing me a moment to feast my eyes upon her before it was smoothed to modesty. “I was so hot. I went for a swim in the pool.” Selei said.
She knelt beside me. The bare skin of her arms was goose-pimpled and she shivered a little. She was still wet. “You should try it. It’s nice.”
On so many days since I have repeated those minutes in my mind, trying to frame what I could, or should have said. But I was young, lacking experience, gauche, and overwhelmed by what I saw, so I said nothing - nothing at all. Instead I turned away, lay on my side staring at the river; thinking that if I did as Selei suggested I would have to remove my own tunic and that thought filled me with purple shame.
Selei laid back in the grass with a little sigh. “It isn’t so wrong, you know. Mother told me that before Magda came she and Pa spent most of their time without clothes.” She giggled. “Except when it was really cold, I guess.”
I did not reply, although I had heard this of my parents too, and I might have agreed if I could have trusted my tongue. I just wished I had courage to say something - just anything - to compliment her on her loveliness, to (more dishonestly) extol the virtues of nudity and suggest we might follow our parents’ example, there and then. For a while neither of us spoke.
Selei said: “I heard Pa and Ma talking the other day.” I may have grunted a response: “I wasn’t meant to hear.”
“Really?” I still had my back turned to her. “Secrets?”
“Kind of. I definitely wasn’t meant to hear.” Selei had turned on her side so I should feel the warmth of her breath on my neck. “Pa said he didn’t think - oh, I hope you won’t mind this - he said he thought Treska wasn’t interested in girls.” She paused in affected innocence, then she asked: “Do you think such a thing could be true?”
No, it had not occurred to me - why should it? In my parents’ world, the kind of interest Selei obviously hinted towards was only observed in animal husbandry. We had a ram once that had no ‘interest’ in the ewes. Pa cut its throat and we ate it. Why did that thought lead me straight back to Treska? Selei’s fingers were running through my hair, playing with my ear; and that drove all other thoughts from my head. I rolled on my back, brushing her breasts with my shoulder. Our faces were inches apart.
“Are you, Cass? Are you interested in girls?”
When there were only two girls in my world, the generalisation struck me as odd, as if those who had originally made the observation about Treska - Selei’s parents - were drawing from a wider resource, the strangeness of a past often referred to obliquely, but never explained.
“I am interested in one girl.” I said carefully. As I said it I realised I was, but compliments were new to me.
“Are you?” My answer clearly delighted Selei. “I wonder who?”
“I wonder.” I managed a smile.
“There’s a test.” She said, in a quiet, almost shaky voice. Her breath was hot on my face. She seemed to steel herself, as though the most important moment in her life was there and then: that moment. And she brought her lips to mine.
It was a kiss. There had been kisses in my life before, although few enough, for my Ma wasn’t given to expressions of emotion where I was concerned; yet my Ma’s kisses were never like this. Beginning innocently enough, then growing in heat, longer and deeper - as if we had both started towards a destination, finding out step by step where it was. Yes, I liked it, enough to return for more when the first one stopped, and more and more, until we were rolling together in the warm grass and the evidence of my need surprised her and she pushed me back.
“We shouldn’t.” She said. And I nodded, turning on my stomach as a disguise. We had both been taught from our earliest years that we would commit ‘a sin’ if we coupled before we were of age. This was twenty-one in my case, eighteen in the case of Magda and Selei. When the time came we were to be ceremonially joined and then our union was ‘recognised’. Even though we had no conception of the meaning of ‘recognised’, still less that of ‘sin’ in the venal sense in those days, we respected our parents, who seemed to think some sort of outrage would be committed if we humans imitated the act we saw our animals perform whenever they were in season, without that recognition.
Selei was giggling at me: “Stop rubbing yourself on the ground!”
My face went hot. “I’m not!”
“Yes you are! You’re sort of - moving!”
“It’s the same for me, you know.” Selei said, as we cooled off with a foot of grass between us. “I’m dreadfully tempted too. It just doesn’t show in the same way.”
“There’s a test.” I said. She snorted with laughter - a deep, knowledgeable sound I had never heard from her before.
We parted late - too late as it transpired. And by the time we left each other that spring evening maybe we had learned there were other things we could do apart from coupling.