Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | September 8, 2014

What You Don’t Know…

This is a banner day! I haven’t written a short story since college. I hope you enjoy it. Maybe this will get me over my intimidation at writing fiction? We’ll see, haha!

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What You Don’t Know…

There once was a village beautifully situated next to a steep, forested slope at the base of a mountain range. The villagers observed a long-standing taboo against venturing into the forest and up the mountainside. It hadn’t always been that way, but long before Aquat’s coming into the world, the elders decided that the area wasn’t worth the risk. Too many had climbed up into the trees and never returned. The elders made up a story about evil spirits in the woods and told the villagers that anyone who violated the taboo would be banished forever. Evil spirits, they said, can infect the unwary that wander among the trees and then in turn infect others.

Aquat had heard this all his life. He faithfully observed the taboo and the other dictums of the elders, because his parents insisted on it. That is, until his parents died.

His parents were responsible for gathering food from an area southwest of the village, a mile away on the side opposite from the slopes. One day they came back early, distressed. His father had some animal scat that no one had seen the likes of. The elders examined it, conferred, and then reassured the villagers that this was probably dropped by some unusual beast that had passed through their area and had by now moved well on. Everyone seemed relieved. Aquat saw that his parents didn’t buy it. How could the elders know that, he thought, after only a quick talk?

A few days later, Aquat’s parents returned from their duties with more of the alien scat. They were concerned. The elders made fun of their concern. Aquat could see their looks of humiliation, but they took it well and deferred. But the next day they burst back into the village after only an hour into their foray. They’d seen the animal! It was large, black but bluish where the sunlight caught its fur, with a long tail, a broad forehead, cunning, piercing eyes, and long whiskers protruding from either side of its nose. It slunk as it moved, as if on the prowl.

This time the elders openly mocked them, angrily. What childish nonsense! No such animals exist. None had ever been seen, and no one was ever heard of finding trace of any such thing. They blamed Aquat’s parents for scaring the villagers and inciting trouble, but his father’s response made him proud. He stood up to them, reminded them and the villagers gathered around of his love and service to all of them, how the elders often enlisted his help to solve thorny problems, and that his reputation for honesty and going to great lengths for the common good was well-known. What motive could he and his wife possibly have for deceiving their friends and alarming them without cause? No, the elders were sorely mistaken about their intentions and about the beast. And then there was this — and he held out a large pile of scat he’d wrapped in leaves. The villagers were visibly shocked at the sight. This only infuriated the elders, but they’d painted themselves into a corner. The villagers loved Aquat’s parents. So did several of the elders, except for this infernal temerity he displayed sometimes, openly contradicting their decisions and questioning their judgment, his wife approving and supporting him all the way. But they were fine people — that couldn’t be denied — and everyone knew that the elders had been wrong to debase them.

The elders conferred, then made a proposal. Aquat’s parents must bring back proof of this animal. Aquat’s father protested, holding out the scat, and asked why it wasn’t proof enough. They said that they had no idea where that came from. It looked like a large pile from one dropping, but for all they knew it was several piles he’d gathered together. Before he could protest further, the chief elder held his hand up for silence, and once everyone could hear, used his most authoritative affectation, (Aquat found it ridiculous and often had difficulty suppressing his mirth,) and spoke. The supposed animal was large and had black fur. Aquat’s parents must retrieve some of the fur and locate footprints to demonstrate the beast’s size. That would serve as proof that this was a real, not fictitious creature.

Aquat’s father seethed with indignation, but he kept calm. He and his wife turned their backs to the elders without a word and set off back to their foraging area. The looks on their faces told Aquat that they meant to put the elders to shame, which surprised him. He’d never seen them defiant like that before. He knew that they’d find the evidence the elders demanded. But they never returned. Later that day, crazy with worry, Aquat sneaked off to look for them. He found their bodies, badly mutilated, about a half hour from the village.

The news terrified the villagers. Incensed and offended, only their hysteria over this sudden menace prevented a general outcry against the elders for sending Aquat’s parents on what was clearly a suicide mission. But the elders managed to restore calm, along with their authority, by convincing them that Aquat’s parents met a fate determined by the gods in punishment for upsetting everyone with wild tales of a deadly, fantastic beast. No prowling phantasm did this. Besides, only minutes earlier they received word from the neighboring village (to the southwest, Aquat realized,) that a pack of coyotes had been harassing them, causing trouble that included property damage, loss of livestock, and the death of a young girl. They drove them off but, regrettably, the pack headed in the direction of Aquat’s village.

News of coyotes in the area seemed to calm everyone down. The elders seized the opportunity and assured them that there was no reason for alarm. Their braves were unmatched and would hunt down the filthy creatures and kill them all. This satisfied the villagers, as if their agitation just several moments before had never happened. Aquat was appalled. He’d never liked the elders — they were superior, arrogant meddlers as far as he was concerned — but he’d never seen them go to these lengths to lie and manipulate. And they disgraced his parents. And everyone was fine with that. At that moment, any remaining hold that the elders still had on him, and any shred of respect that he still held for them, collapsed.

They sent out the braves within a half hour. They stayed out until early evening and there was barely light left to travel by, since it was a new moon. They returned, finally, to find the elders and villagers gathered in the square, waiting, eager to hear that the vile creatures met an awful, painful end. But the braves saw nothing except for more piles of scat which, they made a point of emphasizing, were definitely coyote droppings. The pack had certainly moved on. The information floated into everyone’s minds, then all of a sudden the chief elder threw up his arms, wresting everyone’s attention, partly as if in thanks and partly to indicate “but of course” as he turned around to the villagers, beaming his most patriarchally beneficent smile, the one that they thought made him look saintly, and said nothing. He held that pose for a full minute and a half, radiant, only swaying left to right and back again to ensure that everyone caught a full view. They all heaved a collective sigh, returned to their huts, and slept well that night. Aquat was one of the last to leave the square.

He had a long, painful, sleepless night and woke up enraged. He rose very early to walk it off. The sun was just rising and the mountainside loomed, casting shadow over the village and the area around it. The trees at its base swayed, lost and lazy in the summer morning breeze, oblivious to him. Aquat thought about the taboo. Screw the taboo. He headed straight for the forest.

Once in the trees, he started having second thoughts. What if there was something to the taboo? Terrible things were supposed to happen to anyone who violated it. He soon decided that he didn’t care. He was so angry, he defied the terrors. Go ahead! Pounce and annihilate him, just like the beast had his parents, just so that he could spite the insanity of the world, everything that had happened, and everyone who had a hand in it. He climbed for a couple of hours, fuming and cursing to himself, when in surprise he noticed that the trees seemed smaller and more dispersed the higher he went. In another hour he emerged from what was left of the forest, as if some giant had grown weary of planting it and gave up.

The sun was warm, but the air had a chill. He kept climbing awhile before it occurred to him to look down below. He turned away from the mountain. The tree line obstructed the village, but a vista of the plain below and the horizon beyond struck him like a blow, robbing his breath. He had no idea all that was there. He had to sit down to recollect himself, but his eyes didn’t leave the sight. He’d never seen anything so vast, not even imagined it. No idea. Then it hit him: how small his world, the village, was. Suddenly, he clambered up and climbed furiously. He had to get high enough to see the village itself.

Less than a half hour later he rounded a point and stopped abruptly, almost falling backward, reeling at the massive boulder he nearly ran into. He was directly beneath it. He quickly scrambled to the side. It seemed like it would topple any moment and crash down the mountainside. Once clear of it, he looked it over. He’d never seen a structure so immense other than the mountains themselves, and never from such a close vantage. A knot formed in his stomach in spite of the expansive feeling growing in his gut as he took in its enormity. This must be how ants feel just before we stomp on them. He had no idea how big it was. Even from a distance, the top was hidden from view by its bulging side. It could be fully half the size of the village below. If it broke free from what remained of the rock supporting it, it would mow through the forest like a hand flattening so much hair, and demolish much of the village before coming to rest somewhere far out into the plain. It looked ready to roll at a nudge. Each second that it stayed put seemed like an eternal wonder.

Aquat mustered the courage to get close enough to see what was supporting it. He discovered that there wasn’t much. The rock that the boulder was embedded in was soft sandstone, clearly worn by water which left a network of runoff tracks as it hit the rock and poured down around it, eroding the stone on both sides and below the rock, leaving a wedge of sandstone undisturbed directly beneath it. This supported the rock, but each rain and the melting snows of spring increasingly undermined it. Once it caved, the rock would pulverize its last restraint and crash down, unstoppable.

He abruptly turned and fairly vaulted down the mountainside. He had to warn the village. The beast, the elders, his parents, none of it left his mind or was less maddening, but this trumped all of it. They must move the village. They must leave immediately. He ran, skidded, and tumbled his way down the slope. He burst out of the forest, barely keeping his feet beneath him, racing at the village, tattered, feet and legs bleeding from dozens of falls and the frenzy of countless branches and brambles whipping them.

He rushed into the village square screaming, “We need to go! We need to go!” People gathered around the commotion. The elders soon appeared, as they always did if a crowd of any size formed there. When they heard that Aquat violated the taboo, they were furious, but he was so loud and animated that they couldn’t get anyone’s attention. Before they spoke, they must be sure that they’d be heard. Then they heard his account of the giant boulder, and they couldn’t help themselves. Fury transmuted to farce and the leading elders burst out laughing derisively, and the rest quickly followed. Moments later the whole crowd was infected with hoots, although most didn’t have a clue what was funny. The elders got out a few words between spasmodic, hilarious jeers. First it was outlandish beasts, and now it’s disastrous dirt! What would be next, pieces of the sky falling on their heads? They nearly fell to the ground rolling and guffawing, but finally restrained themselves to preserve at least some shreds of dignity. When everyone quieted down and the chief elder addressed the crowd, Aquat was frozen in confusion. He hadn’t expected this. He hadn’t thought what to expect. He just knew that the village needed to move. Completely disoriented, he had no clue what to do next.

The chief elder decided to take a paternal course. After all, Aquat was still young. Violating the taboo was an indiscretion but, under these extreme circumstances, forgivable. The insane story about a giant rock that would momentarily devastate the village was an understandable figment of his distressed mind. Aquat must be beside himself after the tragic and shocking loss of his parents to a pack of coyotes, of all things. The elders were well aware that he resented them for not taking his parents’ claims more seriously, so they wanted to show everyone their fairness and open-mindedness. They offered him the same opportunity that they offered his parents: bring back proof of this deadly threat. If he had no evidence for it, how could he expect them to believe him? After all, (at this point their condescension wasn’t lost on him,) this was no small thing he asked. Moving the village would uproot everyone, scrapping all the work they’d invested in it, abandoning all the memories rooted there. He must give them proof.

Aquat looked at the elders and the people surrounding him. They believed it. They swallowed every lie. If he didn’t give them proof, they would consider him a fool; either a momentary fool, confused and deluded by grief, or something worse. Even his best friends looked skeptical, and some were downright stern, as if this were all his fault.

The elders expected him to respond. He knew this. Everyone seemed poised, hushed, leaning forward to hear what he’d say. He looked the chief elder square in the eye for several moments, but said nothing. Then he started walking directly toward him. Some involuntary, quickly muffled gasps erupted here and there in the crowd, as if they feared that he meant the elders harm. The chief elder winced and took a step back, but Aquat’s manner clearly showed no intent to attack. He just kept walking right at the chief. It sent chills down people’s spines. The chief elder stepped back, out of the way, his attention so transfixed that he didn’t realize it, and the rest of the elders followed his vacuous lead. A narrow path opened through their midst. Aquat walked through without looking at them, eyes forward. He went to his family hut, gathered his things into a pack, hoisted it onto his shoulders, and left.

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