Since that dark business with the girl, Yarad worked alone though it wasn’t his preference. The role of assistant was modest and strictly unnecessary, but in want of one the day was endured in silence. Customers did not linger to chat. Many of their purchases were awkward in nature, evidence of some mental or sexual defect. So while it was self-evident that the chemist enjoyed success, as the shop persisted into its third year, all souls in town would have imagined that another man’s business kept it afloat.
The boy, Havilah, passed the shop window every afternoon, five minutes from the schoolhouse bell. Presumably every morning as well in the opposite direction, while Yarad was upon the mountain. The chemist thus considered altering his schedule, but it wasn’t practical and ultimately he was a practical man; hence the inspection was limited to a span of some ten seconds a day. Havilah’s manner was precise, his steps exact, his attention unwavering. On one occasion the automobile had trundled by him, trailed by a parade of saucer-eyed children, but Havilah had not given the machine even a curious glance. Yarad observed this from his window.
Two years since the girl, and a corresponding burden of silence impossible to quantify. Yarad’s wife visited the shop just monthly, to balance the books and note deficits in housekeeping. The crafting of his products was habitual and required no concentration, so his thoughts slid and slipped. He swept out the shop on the hour. He sang nonsense songs that sank flat into wooden walls. He worked sporadically on his field guide of local flora, redrawing in pen those sketches from the mountain. He sniffed at his left hand, habitually, over and again. He watched the boy and he thought of the girl.
The usual delivery of jars arrived one day, twelve to a box and three boxes stacked in the glassblower’s arms. On the floor there will be fine, he told the man.
Not on the counter, then?
On the floor there will be fine.
Yarad waited for a number of hours that stretched his mind thin and tight, and he spent it pacing. Finally he arranged to open the shop door just as Havilah was passing.
Hello there son, you’re Chesed’s boy now aren’t you?
Could you be a help for a moment, son? With some boxes--a coin or two for you.
And the next day, another task, and it went on that way.
Yarad visited regularly and played the Saint Nicholas bearing gifts. A spring-driven automaton for Havilah in the form of a marching soldier, delivered out of the east. For Chesed, a primer for illiterate adults with which he made no progress but carried proudly from place to place throughout town, held out in both hands. Look at this then, a book, a book from my friend the chemist.
They would have a dinner of vegetable broth, salted spelt bread and cider vinegar, and Chesed would retire early leaving Yarad to tutor the boy in the last daylight hours. They pored over his illustrations of fern, moss and seed. The anther and carpel, the rhizome creeping underfoot.
And there is a use for them all? For medicine? asked the boy.
It may be so, given time. But my way, to gather and craft by hand, is an old way and dying. Even I must procure most wares from the eastern trade.
Yarad caught the boy’s eyes. Do you want to see? Will you come to the mountain with me? he asked.
I don’t know.
Come see the mountain with me, he persisted, the next day and thereafter.
I don’t know. I will ask Father.
Chesed will not mind. He knows my character and that I confirm your safety.
Surely, but nonetheless, said the boy. I will need to ask.
Do not worry yourself, I will arrange it with him. The mountain will change your view of all things.
And is that good? the boy asked.
Chesed was nothing if not credulous and consenting. But there was still a place in the world for a secret, was there not? If only for the sake of it, to know it could be done? As honest and fearless as Chesed was, he was of a piece with the town: every soul living in every other soul’s backyard with complete knowledge of all affairs, and content with nothing short of this. Whereas on the mountain Yarad could not, even with a telescope, see into any man’s bedroom, and no man could look up and see him.
And so he visited one night and gave Chesed a pouch of tea, which the man brewed for his guest. Yarad deposited his portion into a potted lily while Chesed was distracted with finding further refreshment, and for the remainder of the visit sipped theatrically at an empty cup as though he was entertaining a child’s tea party. For his part, Chesed sampled the drink with hesitation.
It’s a strong flavor, isn’t it?
It’s for strength, Chesed. All wholesome things are bitter.
Chesed laughed his assent and finished his cup, which was more than Yarad hoped for. That next morning there was no answer to a knock, so he let himself in. The man-child was in bed where he had been left, eyes open but a quarter and without focus. Yarad slid Chesed’s key back into the pocket it had been lifted from.
Come then, he told Havilah after waking him. The sun rises.
He let me in himself, didn’t he? He is back off to bed. Come then, don’t disturb him.
An hour later and he descended the broken mountain. The air was gritty, suffocating, and he waded through. It was a frigid morning but still the ground shimmered as if with heat. He set off with the child clutched to his breast, like a bride, but his arms wore quickly so he slung the boy over his shoulder and continued in that manner. The sound was in his ears all the way down, or perhaps that's not quite right. It was a sound, but not in his ears, and not a sound, but a word he did not know. It rang through him in swells, never disappearing but murmuring. Like a chorus from the septentrional monks who come in autumn to solicit for alms or engage in simony to keep them through winter. The sound bubbled low and rough and rose fierce, as the mountain itself had done, rising to swallow him and the boy. There was no memory of it, but he knew it happened. He was hearing it still. A word.
Near the end of its descent, the bulk of the landslide had veered southwest, owing to the slant of basalt ridges and to providence, and thus did not overrun the town directly as initially seemed destined. The product, enough to fill ten of the ancient colosseums illustrated in Chesed’s primer, came to rest somewhere across the river where no man lived. Not a villager was aware of the monstrous event excepting the man and possibly the boy, if the boy still lived. The mountain face sat obscured by fog and the tumult, muted by heavy winter air, was reduced to a buzz in a dog’s ear. And so the town in its ignorance busied itself, spared devastation by the random lie of geography decided a billion years before. Only a benign flash of scree—obsidian and rose salt—passed scattering through the commons. The children were already collecting it up for the purpose of their industry.
One of these children thought to trace back the source of this material and followed its glinting trail up through the cow pastures, where the beasts were found increasingly dusty the farther north she pressed, many lumbering away from the mountain’s base in low-velocity flight. And the child paused at the trailhead and squinted up the path, where an unseen man hollered down around the bends, bring help. And: avalanche.
The child returned in the body of a congregation, briefly hunched at the base of the mountain strapping on packs and lacing boots. Despite reportedly being within earshot minutes before, the owner of the voice had not come into view and was no longer announcing. Some men had brought rifles on first instinct—all prior disasters befalling the town in their lifetimes having necessitated them—but were passing them off to wives and eldest sons upon reconsideration of the nature of the day. There hadn’t been a local avalanche in collective memory, although a community further south along the ridge had been wiped from the earth ten seasons before, no survivors and now just a salt plain wracked by dry wind, scattered with polished skulls inching west. The old grocer recalled that perhaps her grandfather perished in an avalanche of mud before she was born, or was it a flood?
The man on the mountain was surely the chemist, known to ascend near every morning to collect. In winter, a grey moss on the north face. In spring, the foxglove blooms. Berries in summer for nothing more serious than pie. He would begin the climb before a thing stirred so as to arrive at dawn, collect his ingredients and then circumscribe the crown to interrogate every cardinal. There, unobstructed views to every horizon, provinding knowledge vital to the town, and he was contracted by the town’s mayor to relay his findings. The beggar monks shuffled south across the mesa. Bandits sneaking down the river bed northeast. Once and only once, a solitary crow from the west fell dead and half-feathered as it approached the peak, arcing silent into the bramble.
So the chemist was maybe perished and they intended to fetch his corpse from beneath the stones, but inertia gathered slowly and the collective was well into its second hour of planning and coalescing and disintegrating and reforming when Yarad hobbled around the corner and he carried Havilah, and that was a surprise.
The boy was a broken thing. One arm a grotesque and flattened slip of dusky tissue, the other contracted against his chest, both legs cracked and akimbo, only spare teeth left in his mouth. A flap of scalp dangled over his ear like a muff. But he drew ragged breath and uttered a near constant undulating moan. That he lived at all was either miraculous or a curse, with opinions shifting sinister as the weeks passed. For now they unloaded the boy from the man’s shoulder and carried him off over their heads to the infirmary where the philosopher presided over injuries either small or fatal. As for Yarad, he seemed intact but once relieved of the boy his hands went to his temples and worried the skin like a potter and he professed to hear nothing spoken, and was himself speaking too loud and the words slurred.
The boy followed, he said. I saw him too late.
How is it that you survived? they asked him again and again. But he couldn’t hear them. He pushed through to his wife, who stood apart. She wouldn’t meet his eyes and wordlessly they set off to home, him limping apace to stay heel with her.
Chesed was simple but not always so. He’d been a normal and curious child until five years of age, and at five years his mind halted and did not progress. His parents died of fever before he turned seven, the mother and then a week later the father. He was adopted by his mother’s twin sister, who within not quite another seven years would lie with him and have a child and offer to the wider world multiple excuses, reassurances, threats and promises. She was sent west after the child was born. Chesed was simple but not a fool, and he knew Havilah to be his and insisted to raise him. A more dedicated father was not known to exist in town, but that morning he was absent.
A deputation was sent from the mountain path to Chesed’s house directly. They discovered the man in bed despite the lateness of hour, awake but groggy, disoriented. Some scoffed and proclaimed him drunk but he did not smell of it, was not known to partake, and in the home not a drop was found.
Advised that Yarad had brought the boy down from a catastrophe on the mountain, Chesed arrived at the infirmary stumbling over his feet. The philosopher had already stitched the boy’s scalp up in place and splinted his legs. The left arm seeped like a rag slowly wrung. To transport him east to the cities would be fatal, the philosopher believed. He could not be moved. We will have to take the arm, he said.
Chesed demurred. It may heal yet. He kissed the boy on his brow and came away with blood on his lips.
The philosopher said that it certainly would not, and would blacken and swell and its illness would spread through whatever was untouched in the boy and there would be nothing for it. He motioned for his attendants to pull Chesed away and then, alone again save Havilah moaning, thumbed through his texts for an instruction on how to do this thing that he must do, that he had never done.
Havilah was well-liked and the community would have been sorrowed to see him pass. Two years prior another young and beloved child, a girl of fourteen, had disappeared from them. A body of her rough dimension was later found in the ravine, teased apart by carrion birds. For a season her name was spoken in high praise, but in time became difficult to remember and they would cast about for it when recollecting. One can go to her gravestone even now, although the color of her hair and smell of her skin is beyond speculation. That such a girl even existed and was mourned is now just a fact to be memorized by her quick siblings. God is good, the west is lost, the girl is gone and we miss her so.
Havilah, however, lived. Or perhaps he lived, depending on how broadly you will define the term, but in any event the breathing boy was transported within a fortnight back to his own bed where he spent the rest of his days and never again focused his eyes on anything in this world.
There was a question if similar debris had come down the mountain’s north side, endangering their sister city and relations, and a line formed at the grocer to inquire on the telephone. The device was not functioning but the crowd persisted, in the hope that the proprietor might soon deduce the fault and restore it. Yarad’s wife left for the queue to see whether word could pass through regarding her father. Yarad went to bed fully clothed as though to sleep, which he immediately saw to be a ludicrous notion as the avalanche fell on him again, and again, and in fact all through the night.
His wife returned home after some hours and started toward the chamber, but stopped at the door to observe him. She stood there for many moments—could she hear the word? Finally she turned and left. She could not. And he heard it but did not know it. There was another sound as well, ringing in from elsewhere and which he ultimately perceived as a reflection. The word emerged from Yarad fierce but uncertain, and a moment later ringing back quiet yet resolute, an answer to a question. From Havilah. And all night long it shook to and fro, asked and answered, and asked and answered.
Unbidden the bed spun achingly slow, degree by degree, until it faced the opposite wall where outside the house and some five hundred paces further afield the mountain arose. And the word hummed in him and a fever boiled. His head lifted from the bed, and then his back, and knees, and ankles, until his body had risen up clear of it.
Yarad had not slept a moment but had never been stronger. The fever burnt itself out by dawn and his body sank back into the sheets. The word still shook from him but was suppressed, and still it faintly echoed back from across town, from the boy settled deep in his gurney, both of them with feet pointed west.
His wife was absent, and he ate a bowl of blueberries and cream and then several more. He chose, for the first morning in at least four seasons, not to ascend the mountain but rather went straight to the shop. The walk was ten minutes, but today it took five. Strength radiated from him and pulled every chin in his direction. Those on the far side of every corner had already turned their heads to mark him as he rounded. Heliotropism in man. The word. They couldn’t hear it, but it bent their necks. They opened their mouths and made as though to speak, their lips moved and throats vibrated but it was lost in the noise of the word. And still he smiled a broad magnanimous smile, and no soul failed to mirror it. Any lingering concerns regarding his well-being were, in that way, dismissed.
He had left his shop secured, but the door unlocked upon his touch. One countertop and fifteen tables, one hundred small glass jars. Functional preparations for fever, jaundice, immobility of bowel. Also vials of nothing more than tinted water, labeled for impotence, loneliness, doubt, and these also functioned according to the degree of their user’s desire. And in a locked case under a floorboard beneath the third table from the back wall, there was a poultice of dried leaves soaked in an oil extracted from the gray moss growing on the north face. When boiled in water and consumed it would cure any insomnia so matter how impenetrable, though it wasn’t sleep, not exactly. If it is over-used, the texts assert, then one might be lost in that place and not wake.
Though a dozen or more neighbors were drawn by the word to come view him through the window, no customer entered that day. He sat on his purveyor’s stool and directed his nose in turn toward each of the one hundred jars displayed across the room, and from there he smelled each individual one.
His wife entered the shop and squinted at him. If you came to inquire on my health, he told her, there is no need.
In honesty I had no expectation you would be here, she said. I rather imagined you would be visiting your friend.
At the infirmary. The child.
I did my duty, he said. The boy followed me undetected, and I brought him down as best as I was able. The only visitor he needs now is the Sandman, I’m certain.
She took a step toward him and jabbed a thumb behind her. Go then, she said. Do what you will, but the day is done.
I will balance the books.
She had a name once, and it was Risper, but in that place it was custom to be relieved of it upon adulthood. So she became known as Mahli's daughter until such time as she would become her husband's wife. Mahli held the belief that the mind had no gender and took pride in his daughter’s ingenuity, and when Risper reached majority he sent her out from under the shadow of the mountain, to the east where a woman could keep her name or build a new one. She attended the academy and studied the ways that all bodies move, and place force upon one another, and that every corpuscle is also an oscillation.
She met a young apprentice at the chemist’s shop, who was either brilliant in his oddness or odd in his brilliance. On any single day he’d speak halting and soft, mostly of the state. Missing documents and secrets. The constant surveillance of birds. Then he laughed and it was all in jest, and for the next many days he spoke eloquently and seriously and was as handsome as any human being she ever had ever known in her sixteen years.
They married in the third year of their studies. Her father brought a small bag of coins to Yarad, who politely refused them and kissed his father-in-law on both cheeks and sent the old man back home with a rented pack animal and a chest full of poultices for his gout. This was a year of happiness for Risper, though her husband worked many hours and studied late through the night, and she witnessed him mostly in short bursts of motion through the cottage. He came to their bed rarely and there was no child.
In the final month of the final year of their studies, she was awoken by Yarad in the night. He spoke with certainty and calm but there was a sheen of sweat on his brow. Subsequently she could not recall the exchange, as it was fragmented and she would not awaken fully until they were already in the wagon. A bitter and heavy taste layered on her tongue. The wagon was packed with their belongings, and pulled by a horse she had never before seen. They headed west through the night and for another four days, and to any query, Yarad only responded: we have discussed it. And they passed back under the atramentous shadow of the mountain and she lost her name again.
It was not an echo. Or maybe was once but no longer, or echoing still but drowned now in the company of the boy’s own emanating word, the boy himself. Lying alone in bed (his wife now choosing to spend her evenings on a cot in the basement) it was now Yarad in the position to respond, though in truth it was more than he could match. It passed between them like Havilah raising a hammer and bringing it down on Yarad’s breast with such force that the instrument sprang up to strike again. Yarad had not slept since the descent, and days were passing.
He did not again open the shop. On leaving his home all attention drew to him, directed by the boy’s insistent chant weaving through the streets, and it was not bearable. He boarded the windows of his home as well as he could. The world separated itself from him and all physical tasks were now complicated. Hammer and nail and all other things fell away from his fingers as he reached, and he had to snatch at them to ensure capture. Bowl and spoon wriggled from his grasp and he went hungry. If he stood still for more than one breath or two, his feet would rise off the ground, not quite enough for an ant to crawl underneath.
And in time too he came apart, now perceiving all events just a bare instant before they transpired. Not enough to inform his actions, not enough to profit from, but enough that no thing could surprise him. Look here, he said to his wife and pressed a deck of cards into her hands. Turn them out. She viewed him doubtfully and threw them down one at a time. As the edge of each card turned and in the next sliver of time would be apparent, he thought The Hornet and it was. He thought The Cripple and it was. But the window was too narrow for him to speak it.
What’s all this? she asked.
I know them as you turn them.
What, then, is this one?
You have to turn it. She rested the card vertical with a single finger atop to balance it on edge, and looked him in the eye. He remained silent. She lifted her finger and the card tipped and as it did, The Eye, he thought, and it was.
I knew it was, he said.
She grimaced, gathered up the cards and threw them on the ground.
What happened upon the hill? she asked.
I heard a sound. I heard a word.
The word of God, I suppose?
I do not know, but that there is no god, he said.
She spit on the ground in front of him. And for the cave bats there is no sun. You would see God only as the warlord knows peace or the slaver knows mercy. If that mountain had taken you down then you’d know the truth of it. But you live, and so maybe we all suffer for it. Do we? Do we suffer you, Yarad? Will we suffer another year hence?
Leaving the city in the dark of night, in a wagon that wasn’t ours. A landslide that nobody sees or hears. And the girl.
He said nothing.
You knew her.
We all knew her.
You knew her.
There was no ready answer. He had done no evil thing excepting the complete depiction of such in his mind. The world has interceded with a natural malignancy even more dire than his own dim plan: the girl, as had been said from the beginning, in truth did slip. He had himself observed it, her hand sliding out from his and for days after he could appreciate her scent upon his left palm.
Havilah, who now perceived all things in town, struck out against him with the word, so overwhelming in Yarad’s thoughts that it allowed him no ground on which to build deception. And so: I would have, he said. I would have known her.
He had escorted the boy so that he would not fall. He had taken the boy’s hand where the ground buckled. He held him by the shoulder, the neck, the backs of his thighs. He had ensured his safety and would have done so indefinitely, would he not? They reached the lookout gasping, the boy from the novelty of exertion and the man from otherwise, and the boy stared dumbly to the east where, on a more pristine day, the upper spires of the nearest eastern city could be spied through a telescope.
Yarad unearthed a slab of obsidian with the toe of his boot.
See here, the dark stone? There is a picture of it in your father’s book, now isn’t there?
Havilah smiled. I will bring it down for him.
You cannot, said Yarad. It is a secret thing.
But he will want to know what I saw here.
You cannot tell him you were here.
And Havilah just nodded, sadness but no surprise in his eyes. After a moment of deliberation, I think, from now on, you will be alone in your shop, he said. He turned and started off back down the trail.
Yarad clutched at the obsidian. There was part of him, tenebrous and great, that knew this was the only possible outcome. Knew and shivered and swelled and threatened to burst him open. Had two years before watched the girl tumble and twist and yelped along with her, but in elation, a parody of her terror. Had placed its hands on the neck of that child in the city, put its mark there just as it desired to put its mark on every single goddamned soul in creation. Knew all along that Yarad would follow the boy down and lift the rock above his head and suck in his breath and just so, it went just so.
Havilah turned at Yarad’s approach, mouth and eyes agape. One particular moment of stasis and not a sound from the boy as Yarad brought the stone arcing down, but then the earth provided it. A crack, crisp and tight, rippled through the ground. Everything lurched once, enough to make the man’s knees shudder and the boy fall upon his ass. Every bird on the mountainside launched. And it happened, and is happening still.
The constable, more thoroughly attracted to the word than most, sat in shadows across the road and surveilled the house. Yarad left through a window and crawled like a snake for an hour or more, leaving a flattened path of crisp grass behind him until satisfied that the constable did not follow, then rose to lope the remainder of the journey as an elongated and irregular dog.
Chesed welcomed him in. He is sleeping, Yarad. You can see him if you wish.
The home was vibrating so fiercely with the word, it was a wonder the paint didn’t flake from the walls. But Chesed was ignorant of it. Yarad then apprehended that no other man heard because the boy wished for no other man to hear, he wished them to see only what they have ever seen, and know only what they have ever known.
You are like family, continued Chesed to fill the silence. He would not be sad for you to wake him.
In a moment, said Yarad.
I still have some of the tea you brought, for strength. And little did we know how much we would need it. Chesed disappeared momentarily to fetch the pouch. I pour a bit down the boy’s throat every night to keep him well. I save it all for him, but I can make you a cup.
Yarad reached out for the package and put it into his coat. Just give him water, he said.
Are you crying, friend?
In the city there was a bank with an account in her name, and a sum that could keep her for a time, but it might as well be at the bottom of the sea. All resource was stripped from her in this place. Her father had been convinced by letters—dictated by Yarad and signed in her hand—that her circumstances pleased her, and regardless he was now far advanced in illness and age, his mind a place of cloud. Yet one advantage remained: even as Yarad utilized her intelligence to balance his figures, he had no fear of it. And so every month a fraction of coin fell through the cracks and into her grasp. While Yarad conferred with Chesed that night, his wife conferred with the eastern coachman.
I have no desire to abscond with the chemist’s wife, worried the coachman.
You will not hear of it, she said. His time here is done. And mine as well.
The weight of coin in hand tipped the balance, and Yarad’s wife soon passed out from beneath the mountain and was Risper once again.
The boy laid naked in bed, wasted down to a tuft, jutting ribs and toothless grimace and the bright pink stub where his left arm had been. His eyes did not open but he saw all things. The room shuddered in the periphery of Yarad’s vision as the word, Asham, propagated off the boy in waves.
You will be alone, Yarad remembered. You will be alone in your shop. The boy’s proclamation cycled through his mind in every human voice he had ever heard, just as it had at the end of the descent. Rounding the last of the tight switchbacks before the path began to level and the plains would come into sight, before the neighbors would stare and judge from their assemblage, Yarad had sat on his heels and shifted the boy down from his shoulder, observing clearly now the extent of injury. Yarad perched at the last spot where a false step could put you down a ravine. He sat and wondered at the boy’s last spoken words and the desolation of the world.
Here in the boy’s room, he spoke: There is no penance for plague, Havilah. Such as took your grandparents. There is no penance for the wolf that steals a chicken. There is no penance for the actions of a natural world that, when working counter to our interest, we call evil. But regardless we make potions against plague, and hunt down the wolf.
The boy said nothing.
There sits no ghost to rebuke me, said Yarad. Only man.
Because in the end, nothing went down the ravine but a fist-sized hunk of stained-red obsidian brought out of his pack, and he’d lifted the boy again onto his shoulder and finished the descent.
I returned for judgment.
West, said the boy finally.
Yarad nodded and turned heel, or maybe stood still with all creation instead shifting around his axis, and then moving under his feet.
It is not so.
Chesed, listen. The injuries were odd, with an appearance of deliberation.
It is not so. The avalanche.
The only evidence of which is Yarad’s word and some pebbles in a child’s bucket. His wife opened the shop to me, I have seen his writings. The authorities hesitate to apprehend him, but he is sick. He sees the world other than you and me, and is unwell. You must tell me if you see him.
I see him often.
Not as often anymore, philosopher. He was great friends with my boy. Brought him gifts, and me too for that matter. But he was here last night, philosopher.
To what purpose?
He retrieved his tea, so I imagine that you right and he is unwell. And he visited with Havilah. I heard his voice through the wall. They are of a piece, he says, he and Havilah.
Tell me now, is the boy here?
He is sleeping, philosopher.
It is not my title, whatever Yarad imagines. I am just a doctor, and not half as wise as I should have been.
A dry river bed curled through the swale, choked with pasty weeds sucking on the memory of whatever water once moved there. Just to the north in the low ridges of the mountain a newborn hill of dirty basalt bound up with the threads of a hundred unearthed trees. He passed on down the disappeared river. There was a bridge remaining from some other people, raised up out of great Cyclopean stone and now wrapped in vegetation, kingfisher nests, caked in guano but standing solid. Once on the other side he was further west than any human he’d known or known of. A deer trail led precariously through a thicket engorged with thorn and foreign bramble, and presently he emerged onto an ochre plain of heavy dust that reached out to the horizon and—as would come to pass—some weeks further. For as many days as he walked, his feet gliding just above the earth, this terrain drifted downward at the slightest angle and pulled him forward. Two days travel and he drew upon the first automobile, a sun-blasted hulk that had settled down into the earth half-submerged. A day later and there was another, and then by afternoon the plain was choked, almost one atop another, all pointed east to the world at his back.