[Illustration: “Abadonna” © 2006 by Romeo Esparrago.]
The Hill of Magnificence had been in sight all day, but it was only on the eve of dusk that Samuel reached it. It was tall and verdant, and standing at the base, he could not see the top, where the stone slab stood embedded in the wild grass.
Samuel’s head swam as he ascended the slope. Now, after so long, reaching his destination felt like the final step on the gangplank, or perhaps the final tightening of the knot that held him to the guillotine. His calves were screaming, his feet blistering, but none of that registered.
He had spent what seemed like an eternity, lumbering along desert roads, with the eastern mountains at his back, searching for the Hill, which was somewhere in this desert world between the mountains of his home and the mysterious sea in the west. Finally, struggling over the crest of the Hill, he was bombarded by scarlet sunbeams. They stung Samuel’s tired eyes, and he raised his arms to block them.
The stone sentinel was there in the center, just as he had been told; silent and austere, it cast its long shadow towards where he stood. He sensed the energy in his body evaporate like the sparse morning dew on the desert roads. He fell to his knees and slid forward on the slick grass. He hid his face in his arms, despairingly, and lay prostrate, weeping uncontrollably. As the sun sank, the headstone’s cold shadow reached out and kissed his face, taunted him, made the memory of Michelle jump to life and fill him with guilt. He knew it was his fault that she was dead.
* * *
Coming from the mountains, Samuel had been raised needing nothing; food was in constant supply, water was so abundant it was bothersome. Although he lived too far away from any other mountain people to make friends, his parents were smart and had educated Michelle and him. From the nook in the branches of the oak tree outside his bedroom window, he could see down the west side of the mountain, onto the vast expanse that was the desert. The tree was a tranquil place to watch the dusk gather every evening. Each night it was the same: the sun would linger, as if it were debating whether to touch the water. But in the end, it would, and the sea would swallow it for the night before the mountain released it again the next morning. The sun never learned, and watching it never bored Samuel.
Samuel always wondered why the desert people never came to the mountains. From a great distance, he spied on them daily without their knowledge, like some kind of teenage god. He could see them struggling. The men had to travel dozens of miles daily to reach land capable of growth and cultivation. They guarded their wells like the Church protects the holy relics of the Lord Himself. Didn’t they know that if they came to the mountains, there would be plenty for all?
But they never came, never even packed their tents for the trip. They kept right on living, day by day, until Samuel began to laugh at their hardships. He watched the dust and grit rise behind the caravans every day, giggling softly as he took a bite out of a ripe apple. The desert people were stupid, and if they decided to live in hardship all their lives, then that was their decision.
And then came the sickness. It was harmless at first, just a mild bit of coughing and sneezing, nothing to be necessarily concerned about. But when Samuel’s father collapsed to his knees one afternoon while chopping logs, Samuel knew it was serious. Michelle helped their father inside, where their mother tended to him in bed. Michelle helped because she was the oldest and a girl. She paced back and forth, dousing a rag with cool water for the fever, making tea, and washing sheets. Samuel sat timidly in his wooden chair, seeing but not comprehending, and for the first time since he could remember, he forgot about watching the dusk.
It was with a soft murmur that the healer informed Samuel’s mother that his father had two side-by-side cuts above the ankle, which indicated a snake bite. It was probably a Shadowback, he said, because they are common in the mountains and have numbing venom in their fangs, so the victim doesn’t feel the bite. According to the healer, there was only one antidote to stop the venom from reaching the heart, but it came from a lavender flower that grew only in the desert below — a place where the healer would never dare venture. As far as the healer was concerned, Samuel’s father was doomed.
Samuel could not comprehend why they could not travel down the mountainside and pick one of the flowers. But the healer protested, saying that the desert people would never allow it. “They are a violent, unpredictable people, Sammy,” he said, “and you wouldn’t want your mother to have to live with you being hurt as well, now would you?”
The healer left, and so sealed fate. Samuel’s father passed away the following week, and they buried him at dusk.
Life felt surreal. Samuel took up the chores that were his inheritance, flew through them, and sat in the oak tree every night. Once again, he watched the desert people and the dusk, trying to bring routine back into a life that felt ripped apart. Now, the actions of those people brought a new emotion to the surface: anger. Resentfulness, because it was their fault that his father had died. They possessed the cure, but kept it out of his reach. One day, he would get them back.
But life’s cruel irony struck first when Samuel’s mother collapsed one day at the stove. She moaned incoherently as her two scared children carried her to bed. Her sickness came like a punch in the gut to Samuel. Once again, the healer made the long journey to their secluded house, and once again it was the same: a snake bite that would kill her. “There must be a den around,” he said. “You two should leave here. It’s too late for your mother.”
No, Samuel told himself, not this time. His mother would not go softly into the night like his father had. And so, waiting until Michelle had fallen asleep at their mother’s bedside, he packed a few things into a leather knapsack that belonged to his father and began his journey down the mountain.
To the desert.
It was days of following the sun before the ground leveled out and the grass became dry and dead. This gave way to sand, and finally, hard, gritty dust. Samuel quickly discovered that if he were not careful, his waterskin would be quickly emptied, and he would thirst to death. He needed to find a village and, hopefully, the healing flower.
At high noon on the fourth day since leaving his home, he approached a cluster of buildings near a sign that read “Arvada”. Immediately, he went to a well outside the village, filled his waterskin, drained it, and filled it again. He sighed contentedly and wiped his cracked lips. When he opened his eyes, he froze.
He was surrounded by people wearing large, flowing robes that were little more than bed sheets tied at the waist with homemade rope. Their heads and faces were covered, revealing only dark, venomous eyes. Some held sticks in their hands, some had wooden clubs with nails jutting out at one end, and one even had a knife.
“Thief!” one of them shouted in a high voice, and Samuel realized that it was a woman. The others cheered in concurrence, and he saw that they were all women. “How dare you steal our precious water?”
“Please,” Samuel said, raising his hands in a motion that he hoped would convey innocence. “I need help. I’m looking for a flower to cure snake bites–”
“You come from the mountains!” someone shouted.
“A mountaineer? Kill him!”
“How dare he show his face in our village!”
It dawned on Samuel that there was no sense trying to talk his way out of it. Making up his mind, he dropped his knapsack into one hand and swung it like a mace as he broke from the circle. A blow connected solidly with one of the desert people’s shoulders, knocking her to the ground. He reached down, picked up her club, and ran as hard as he could, leaving Arvada and its furious women behind him.
When dusk came that night, Samuel was parched. His arms and neck were sunburned, and his waterskin was long empty. If he didn’t find water soon, he felt sure that his tongue would harden into a rock. He stopped to watch the sun disappear over the horizon (the distant sea was no longer visible), and some far movement caught his attention. It was a caravan of desert people; the men perhaps were returning to their homes after their daily exodus. Samuel began following them.
When they finally entered the village of Addes, he saw the last person he expected to see — Michelle. She was standing alone in the street, staring up at the steps of a large building, where it seemed that all the men in the village had gathered. Michelle was surrounded by a crowd of people, presumably women, who gave her fifty feet of space. She was pleading to the men, asking for the flower to save her mother.
Samuel fought his way through the crowd, clutching the club he had stolen but keeping it well hidden. He had no idea what Michelle thought she was doing, running off and leaving Mother alone, but if he needed to, he would fight to get her out of there unscathed.
But the denizens of Addes were far from willing to let him reach her. Shouts rose from the crowds like the cackles of a flock of birds, and Samuel felt a dozen hands grasping at him. He was tackled and dog-piled before he could swing his club, and he fell heavily to the ground, dropping the weapon.
Samuel felt himself being dragged to the center of the circle, beside his sister. She embraced him, told him how worried she had been, but then a booming voice cut her off. Samuel stared up at the desert men.
There were fifty of them at least, all shirtless now that it was evening. Their bodies were dirty, but strong and fit. Most of them held some kind of tool, ranging from a spear to a hoe, perhaps depending on what their job was during the day. The one in the center spoke, pointing his spear tip at Michelle. “This is your brother.” He said it with certainty, daring her to deny it. But she nodded. The man was silent for a moment before making up his mind. “Very well, we will give you the flower, but on one condition only. One of you must remain behind, to live among us in the desert.”
“Until the other returns?” Michelle asked.
The man grinned a dirty grin, and the lines of his face cracked with hardened dust. “For the rest of your life.”
Samuel was horrified by the prospect, but before he could voice an objection, Michelle said, “Agreed. I will stay. Now quickly, please, the flower.” The man nodded and retreated into the building, soon returning with a five-petaled lavender flower.
“Michelle, rethink this,” Samuel pleaded. “There has to be something else we can do, something we can offer. We can give them food and water from the mountains, new cloth–”
“It won’t work, Sammy,” she said. “I’ve been trying. Now, take the flower and go.”
“Let me stay, you go.”
“No, you’re faster. Besides, I’m the eldest, it should be me who takes this responsibility. Now quickly, before it’s too late.”
Samuel sprung up the steps, ripped the flower from the man’s hand and sprinted back toward the looming mountains, not stopping to rest until the first morning sunbeams gleamed over the peaks and once again illuminated the vast desert and the sea beyond it.
That was the last time he would ever see Michelle, and her final words to him echoed in his head. “Before it’s too late….”
But it had been too late, just as Samuel had known it would be in his heart. His mother was cold and silent when he threw her bedroom door open. Despondent, Samuel had destroyed everything breakable in his house before placing kindling at the foot of his mother’s bed, lighting it, tossing the lavender flower onto the flames, and walking away.
* * *
As he stared at the blank headstone that indicated Michelle’s body, Samuel remembered what it had been like, returning to Addes. The sneers he had gotten from the women, the pitiless laughing, and finally, the horrible truth. Michelle had tried to escape, but had been captured. Punishment for refusing to adhere to one’s promise of servitude was death, and she had received it. As an example to all, her grave was dug atop the Hill of Magnificence, so that all who ventured into the desert could see what awaited people who did not hold to their word. Those were the people who underestimated the inhabitants of the desert, who thought they were an uneducated, foolish people.
Samuel turned to look over his shoulder; he could barely see the stream of smoke still rising from the desert, and it was the one thing he could take joy from. Carrying small pieces of kindling and a book of matches in his knapsack, he had set out to destroy Addes. Once the fire was started, there was no putting it out. The cloth tents and wooden buildings, weakened from the daily abuse of the sun, crinkled and collapsed like paper. The hard adobe brick houses crumbled into dust, trapping many within, but Samuel had not paused or looked back.
Until now. Until it was long over.
Samuel took out a small chisel from his knapsack and began engraving on the stone. When he was done, he stood, letting the last glints of sun sting his eyes and cause tears to roll. He touched his tears tenderly, wiped them across the words, and kissed the stone. Finally, he slung the knapsack over his shoulder and continued down the other side of the hill toward the bleeding crimson sky in the unknown west.
Behind him, atop the Hill of Magnificence, stood the warning stone, but no longer blank. The freshly carved words were starkly clear even in the gloaming:
Here lies Michelle, my loving sister, in whose life dusk came too quickly. *
About the Author: Devin Miller is new to writing fiction. He lives in North Carolina and loves baseball, which he plays three seasons out of the year.
Story (c) 2006 Devin Miller DMMILLER4000@aol.com
About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago is an artist who lives in the mysterious west.
Illustration (c) 2006 Romeo Esparrago http://www.planetmag.com