“Old man, what’s that up there?”
“You call it that? What is it?”
I frown. It’s a broad gateway high on Thumb Hill. It’s made of tan stone, carved with shapes as old as the Thumb itself, flanked with squared-off pillars and wrapped in cords as wide as I am tall. The binding cords reach up, twined together at the tip of the gateway, and then on beyond our sight into the sky. We can see it from anywhere in the valley, Thumb Hill and the Unfoundary.
“What is it?” the young stranger repeats.
“We call it the Unfoundary,” I reply. “You must not be from around here.”
He shakes his head, which is covered in wavy brown hair. “I’m from the east. Trinlos.”
“Ah, a city. I’ve been there before.”
“You have?” Surprise, perhaps respect. “You traveled a long way, old man.”
“Us both. I hope you didn’t come to see the Unfoundary only, but we don’t have much anything else to see in our valley.”
“You have forests, and snow,” he says, glancing around past the edge of the village. “I’m traveling further south, but I like your village.”
“Fortune to you, then,” I say with a slight bow.
“Tell me, though, what is this Unfoundary? It must be as wide as your whole town!”
I can’t tell whether he means to compliment our scenery or insult our size. “I’d stay off the hillside, if I were you. The Unfoundary is an evil place.”
“What’s evil about it?”
“It’s a place where the dead go–where people sometimes go to die.”
His face shows interest, curiosity. “Trinlos is superstitious, but I didn’t think you westerners were as well.”
I shrug my shoulders. “We stay alive this way. And safe.”
The young man’s intrigued expression fades as he shifts his haversack and stamps his feet for warmth. “I’m not sure how much I believe of your superstition, but it’s interesting, to say the least. Good day to you, old one.”
I grunt. “Safe travels.” What I wouldn’t give some days to travel again. It’s been fifteen years since I so much as climbed the side of the valley.
The day is calm and white–early snowfall from a blank sky. Most of the village stays inside their huts, pungent smoke filtering out through fire holes and the occasional opened door. I see my friend Onór at the side of her hut watching the traveler go.
“You talked to him?” she asks me.
“Yes. He’s from Trinlos–did you know I went there once?”
“Where haven’t you gone?” Onór asks with a faint smile. “I think you’ve had too many years with not enough work to do.”
Perhaps she’s right–I’m five years older than anyone else in the village–forty-five older than most. Some of them have never left the valley. Most have never left sight of it, never seen a city or a sheer mountain or the sea. It’s strange to be the old one.
“Where’s he headed to now?”
“South,” I reply. “Probably looking for money.”
“There’s no riches worth leaving a safe warm hearth for this time of year.”
Onór sees my eyes following the traveler onto the forested slope of the valley. “Oh, did you want to go with him?” she asks dryly. “Poor old dog. I think your travels are done now.”
“Maybe,” I say again, with an idea shaping in my mind.
I lie awake long into the night, staring at the charred roof of my hut. I’m the only one who lives here–the only one since my father died, thirty winters previous. I know every feature of the place, from the shallow fire pit to the wolf-skin covering that serves as a window, the battered wooden shelf my mother used for a washing bowl. The bowl was emptied for the last time when she returned to the ground–what did father and I need with it?
I know it too well. I’ve seen it all too many times. My mind stretches for a new sight, a new smell, a new rhythm in the drumbeat of each day. I recognize the feeling, because it’s the wanderlust I had as a young man. Yes, I was young once.
I would never make it to Trinlos again. I’d probably be eaten by bears if I tried crossing the border into Ghirin–bears or tax collectors. I know my legs won’t get me through the north pass, where I once helped guard a trading convoy. My wanderlust has come too late to take me much of anywhere.
I roll back the wolf-skin and a wave of frigid air shakes me. Outside the night is dim, cloudy white from another fresh snow. On Thumb Hill I see the Unfoundary, and I know I can make it that far.
“I’m not sure how much I believe of your superstition,” the young traveler had said. I smile to myself, because in my old age I’m starting to doubt them too. Or not to care, rather.
No sense in waiting. If I’m going to get myself killed, better sooner than later, when my body is yet more decrepit. I pack a pouch of milk from Jarn’s goat, two loaves of flatbread, a handful of walnuts, which will make my teeth ache but taste good. I add a strip of smoked fish, wrap my scarf around my neck, put on my heavy cloak and trudge out into the snow.
A dog looks up as I pass. He doesn’t bark, since he’s known my smell since he was born. The only other sounds in the village are my steps in crunchy spots of ice.
It takes me a long time to climb Thumb Hill. It’s steep, and the snow makes the footing treacherous. Once when I was young I climbed the bare wall of a stone citadel. It was in Arves, to the south, and I was part of a band of soldiers trying to rescue Arves’ prince. I was reckless. I smile at myself, because I liked to be reckless. Maybe I still am.
The Unfoundary expands across my sight as I crawl up the hill. The squared pillars on each side of the gateway gain definition, even in the gloom. They’re scarred with symbols, letters, drawings that I can’t decipher. The cords binding it all fuse together into a sort of chain. If my arms were strong, I could climb straight to the clouds, where it fades from sight.
“Why did you come here?” a voice asks from behind.
I slip into the snow, trying both to turn around and jump ahead at once. My heart seems to halt for a half second, until I see that it’s only Lokos, my childhood friend.
“Lokos, you startled me. How did you sneak up on me?”
“Sneak? I’ve been waiting for you.”
Then I remember. Lokos returned to the ground two years back, the same year as the drought. My heart pauses again, and my breath seems to freeze in the air beside me. Lokos stands before me, pock-marked face, dirty beard, eyes as black as rooks. But I know he’s dead.
“Are you going to stop now?” Lokos asks impatiently. “It’s cold and I want to sleep.”
My feet stay lodged in a thin crust of displaced snow. I was there when Lokos was buried–I must be seeing things, hearing things.
“Stay and freeze if you want,” he says. “I’m going in.”
With that he trudges further up, and soon moves behind a rocky outcrop. I stay rooted in place for a long moment, wind chewing on my face and hands. I’m too shaken to move until the snow gives out beneath me and I slide to one knee. Pain in my joints wakes my mind.
“I’ll go back,” I say to myself. “Old fool.”
“Yes, you should,” says my father, who stands not five steps away. “This valley was never the place for you.”
My mouth falls open. My eyes are wide, stinging. Father looks my own age–the end of his life. I still remember the infection he suffered, the festering cut that led to his death.
“Come on, now,” he says, and puts a corporeal arm around me. “I’ll miss you, but I’ll never blame you for leaving. The road is your home, Son.”
Faltering steps, the same speed. We walk the same way, in fact, almost mirrors of each other. “Where are we going?” I ask.
“West,” he says. But we aren’t heading west. We’re heading toward the Unfoundary.
The snow and ice melt away over a half-hundred steps. The hill becomes a flat road, and my father becomes Trithin, a farmer a few years older than me. The road goes into his field, which is bogged with inches of standing water.
“We won’t get a single bushel of food from my fields,” says Trithin. “I’ve never seen a flood this bad, not in all my life. What do you suggest?”
I recall the day. I was summoned to examine his fields, the ones up on the valley slope, even the wheat and corn fields at the mouth of the valley. Everything is covered in water, and the ground bends beneath our steps. Somehow I’m cold, despite the sun.
“Do we leave, or do we stay?” the farmer asks. “I’ll trust whatever you say.”
I stiffen, remembering what I said–it’s been twelve years now since that flood.
“Leave or stay?” he asks again.
I force my mouth open. “This is our valley. We stay, Trithin.”
The fields and muddy water splash out of existence, and I am before the Unfoundary once again. Snow piles on my shoulders and over my ears. The slope is slackening, leveling to the flat peak of Thumb Hill. I’ve come a long way.
“Will you sell me your field?” a young, wealthy farmer is asking me. He came here from the east, and brought new seeds, new fruits, new techniques to break ground for planting. He wants the land for himself, the entire valley if he can get it. I see it in his eyes, twenty years ago.
“I can’t sell you anything,” I say.
“Nonsense. You’ve got the best piece of land this side of the mountains. How much do you want for it? I can see to it you never go hungry again, old man.”
“I’m not so old,” my twenty-year-ago self says. “And I won’t sell my father’s land.”
He sneers. “Could be I was wrong. I heard a rumor that you gave the land to that fool swineherd Dold. Is that true?”
“What of it, if it is? I can do what I like with my own property.”
“You’re as much a fool as he is. He’ll turn your fields into a mud hole.”
“But his family won’t starve,” I say. “You’d let half the valley go hungry so you can trade more bloody coppers with the other villages.”
“Those ‘bloody coppers’ are what keeps your village safe!” he growls.
I’m still strong, and I’m tired of an outsider telling us how to handle what time has given to us. I swing my fist into his gut, then grab him by the shoulder and hurl him into the brambles beside the road. He’s strong, but he hasn’t worked like we have in the village. The only harm he can do me is a long-range jab of his pointed nose.
Again I find myself standing in the snow, yet closer to the great shadow of the Unfoundary. The cold is turning my face numb, trying to ice my throat shut. I find myself laughing, though, as I recall what I was twenty years ago.
I walk toward the looming gateway. The Unfoundary is bigger–four or five times over–than I ever thought from the low ground of the village.
The white and black of snow and tall shadow disappear again, and I’m in the shadow of a blue mountain instead. I’m near the Ghirin border, fifty years old, armed with a bronze-head lance and a thin cowhide for armor. I’m the oldest of thirty or so soldiers. We’re preparing to storm a lookout tower just beyond the mountain. I was terrified, green with sickness when it happened. Now I’m calm because I know we’ll win. I’d charged ahead when the first few men faltered. I took the tower gate and held the doorway open with my lance, until the other men maneuvered up and overwhelmed the Ghirin defenders. I killed that day, not for the first time, but for the last time. Even now it makes me flinch.
Into the Unfoundary, beneath countless tons of tan stone. I see my father weeping, as mother goes back to the ground. She was sick so much of her life. Why was he surprised? I always knew she would die first. Somehow I never cared as much as father did. I couldn’t understand his grief, his weakness around death. He stopped working the fields, stopped hunting, stopped trading, even stopped walking. For months he just sat there and ate what I offered him. It took me those long months to forgive his grief when mother died. Then he died too, and I finally understood him.
The Unfoundary draws me into shadow. It’s windless and smells like burning pine. It reminds me of the years on the road before father died, before mother died. I traded in Trinlos and all along the great eastern ocean front. I guarded convoys between Ghirin and the southlands. I once tried my hand at exploring the great wastes beyond White River. The others who joined me lasted better than I did, but none of us had been out more than a month before we decided to turn back to the world we already knew.
“Why did you travel so long?” asks a soft voice.
It’s Marna standing beside me. She’s tall, ebony hair twisted in a braid over one shoulder, eyes bright even in the gloom. She’s more beautiful than I remembered–young, too young to be dead.
I shudder and stop walking. I try to speak, but my words halt in my mouth. I can’t answer her question with words.
She puts a hand on my shoulder. “You’ve been so many places now. Why not stay in the valley for a while?”
I pull away out of reflex. “I-I have to help old Trithin. He needs someone to cross the border for him.”
“I thought he only traded nearby.”
“Ah. W-well he’d like to trade more across the border.”
She gives me a strange look–as if she can see through me. “What is it you’re running from? You haven’t spent more than a week here in five years.”
“I don’t like it here, Marna.”
“Yes you do.”
She walks away, and I’m in the gateway of the Unfoundary once again. My body feels stiff, not with cold, and my knees rattle from something other than shivers. My eyes sting, and I imagine Marna yet in the blurry shadows. I thought I had banished her from my memory. I promised myself I would.
To banish her again I search my mind. Whom else will I find here? I wonder what or whom I’ve forgotten, what this place is trying to show me, or make me think.
Polt comes next, and my fists clench.
He laughs eagerly. “Back from the wastes already? Your parents talk about you everyday! They’re very proud.”
I bury my anger. “I try to live up to what they expect from me.”
Polt’s easy smile comes out. “I think you try too hard, some days. When did you last do something for yourself? You should buy some land, build a house, or a stronghold even. You’ve been enough places to build your own city!”
“I don’t want a city,” I reply.
“You don’t want anything, that’s your problem,” says my friend. “You should settle down, find yourself a good wife, let the outsiders deal with their own problems.”
“I can’t leave my friends on their own, they’re heading north next–”
“Excuses,” Polt laughs. “Marna always says you’re full of excuses.”
The ease with which he says her name hurts me. The closeness with which he can say it. I had that closeness before he realized she existed.
“I tell you,” he goes on, blind to my unease. “I used to think of how good it would be to go with you, but now I can’t imagine leaving the valley. I think I’m too much of a coward! And I can’t think I’d ever be happy away from her, you know. She’s too much a part of me.”
My anger courses up through my chest. How I’d like to yell what I feel, tell him never to mention her again. How I’d rather that I simply didn’t know them at all.
Instead I say, “Polt, I think you made the best choice. She’s a catch.”
Perhaps he senses the longing in my voice. “Don’t think there’s no one for you, either. If you stayed still for more than one day I could find you a nice wife too.”
“I don’t want a wife, Polt.” I only want Marna, and I can’t let myself.
“Someday you will, mark my words. There’s more to life than cities and oceans and money.”
So I walked away. I stayed far away from the valley, as often as I could. When I did visit, I only saw my parents and my mother’s sister. Polt had been my best friend since we were born, but I risk making an enemy of him every time I see him, every time I see him with her.
“You’re a good friend,” says Polt. “I’ll miss you, till you return.”
I am a good friend. So I won’t return.
It was almost five years before I came back after that. Even then I only came for a few days, and it wasn’t because I wanted to. It was because I met a trader who’d passed through after scourge hit the valley, after nearly half our people died of sickness they didn’t know how to cure. I knew how to fight the scourge–I’d learned while I was in the east. But I came back late, and Marna was already dead.
One more reality unfolds around me, blocking the snow and night sky and Unfoundary from me. This time it isn’t fifty, sixty years ago. It’s today–myself, standing in front of my old, battered, snow-capped body.
I say, “To die, you have to leave your life behind.”
My mind flies again through the years–advising Trithin; traveling north and east and south; mourning when my father died; saying goodbye first to mother; watching Polt and Marna dance on midsummer; watching myself as a scrawny boy, barely strong enough to stand up in the wind; staring up at the Unfoundary on Thumb Hill.
“I’ve come a long way–lots to leave behind.”
And perhaps that’s why, as I put the Unfoundary behind me and walk back the way I came, I find that it’s no longer cold.