The howling never drowned out my mother’s screams. It was as if the storm had taken on the purpose of shielding me from her cries. The single candle light cast shadows on the tent walls as they flapped violently in the wind. My father had left five days ago. To get help. He never returned.
I buried her the next day under a clear, cold sky. From her grave, the Tundra extended as far as I could see. The horizon, now void of comfort, gave no glimpse of a home that called me to return. My home had never been a place. It had always been my mother’s comforting arms and my father’s strength.
My cries fled from me into the vast landscape. The Tundra took them, swallowed them unheard. I stood at the grave leaning into the wind as if to push it back, command it to carry my mother’s soft whispers back to me; the memory of her tucking me in at night; her sleeping next to me when it was coldest.
I packed up the tent and what I could carry. She had given me a figure carved from wood for my eleventh birthday. It was still new and shiny in my hand. Except for the deep pain I felt in my gut, it was all that was left of her.
The low sun never reached the zenith, always came from the left as I walked west. Seven days I spent in terror of the nights that followed. When the sky darkened, so did my thoughts. I could keep them at bay during the day but at night they came clawing and cutting, reaching with bloodless hands for my heart to squeeze it and tug at it until I wanted it to stop beating altogether. The sounds of the Steppe became harbingers of death. I did not know what to live for other than the thought that my mother would not have wanted me to die.
“Follow the sun to the west,” she told me before she passed. “You will find a gentler land and kinder people, not the harsh Tundra folk. Go to a town named Corniglia where the land meets the salty sea.”
She was already so weak that I could barely understand what she said.
“Repeat it back to me,” were her final words.
She died while I muttered the only promise I had ever made – a promise I could not break even if I wanted to, even as the dark thoughts told me to end it now. Even when I had no hope left other than the last and final spark I had seen in her eyes when she described the far away land with its rich soil and fertile ground; its markets filled with people and small abodes made of stone to sleep in; with the sound of a vast ocean breaking onto the sandy beach as a gentle companion at night.
I don’t know how much I slept during those first weeks. The pain at times held me to the ground with such force, I could not move a limb. Yet my mind raced in search of my mother. She was nowhere to be found. I thought I would catch some small part of her spirit somewhere. Maybe it would brush against me or lead my glance toward a sign that she was still around. But the emptiness in me was witness to the slowly growing belief that she had been nothing more than a figment of my imagination. Only the small wooden figure in my hand, now darkened from sand and soil and grief, told me that she had been real.
I should have waited for my father. Maybe a few more days. Maybe a few more hours. I looked around me constantly searching the endless landscape for a sign of him. Each night, the orange sun set straight ahead, a glimmering disk melting into the horizon.
I edged a large marsh land of dying trees that stood like spikes of war out of the dark water. The smell of death and decay were my constant companion. I hunted small animals and cooked them over a low fire at night. I found no joy in killing the only living things I encountered.
Beyond the marsh land, I followed a path that went steadily uphill and into the mountains. Soon, I walked next to a small creeks carrying ice cold water and the promise of more food. One night I slept on a rock, listening, imagining my mother’s lullabies in the sounds of the water. But it soon mocked me with her absence and a deep cold settled in from which I could not escape.
The next morning I caught a few fish and smoked them over the fire. I traveled ever upward leaving the trees and lush grassy fields behind. As I walked, rock formations rose ever taller into the sky. They stood dark against the sun during the day and appeared like shimmering gold in the evening hours. But their majestic presence could not bring me peace. I was haunted by my mother’s cries at night and slowly but surely I began to believe that I could have possibly prevented her death. I should have been better, wiser, more grown up. She had taught me the healing touch and I knew enough of herbs and plants to recognize which ones are used to lower a fever or to cure an infectious wound.
In truth, I had thought my mother was invincible.
* * *
The path made a sharp turn to the left following along a narrow ledge in the rock to a small plateau. From there and across the valley, a towering pillar of stone rose up before me. The sun sat behind it, keeping what faced me in the shadows. The pillar was attached to the mountain only by a narrow ridge.
I set up camp. When night pulled away the curtain of light, it revealed a sea of stars in the sky. As I watched, I could feel the longing inside me – a pull from somewhere out there, as if one of the million star lights called me home. But the easterly winds soon pushed clouds high across the sky and all lights but one dimmed in the darkened firmament. After a while I noticed that the single light that was left was not that of a star.
I looked down to the ground so to let my eyes get used to complete darkness. From there my gaze slowly went upward until I saw the light again. It wasn’t a star. It was a window. High up, at the top of the pillar, I could make out the shimmering silhouette of what I thought must have been a man made structure.
I soon drifted to sleep but whenever I woke up, the light was there, suspended in the sky. When the sun rose in the morning, illuminating the face of the pillar and casting its golden light onto the black granite, I could see, far above me, a stronghold of stone. There were two square towers connected by two roof lines, curved like waves. I could not take my eyes of it. I knew I had to find a way to climb up there.
This was easier said than done. Before me a large field of fallen rocks spanned the distance between the plateau I stood on and a sheer cliff side. From here it didn’t seem possible to even attempt a climb to the top. But I didn’t see another way so I began to make my way across the rubble. The rock cut into my hands and bare feet like glass. It was as if I left a trail of blood across the field of stone. When I reached the other side, I was exhausted and thirsty beyond what I thought possible.
A small trickle of water ran down the side of the mountain only to disappear into a narrow crevice below. I pressed my mouth against the stone, soaked up what I could. It was not enough.
I did not dare think about what I would do if I were to get stuck half way up the face of the mountain. And yet I climbed, gaining height quickly at first but when the strength in my hands slowly gave out, when my legs began to shake uncontrollably, I knew I was in trouble. At the same time, while climbing I had watched, out of the corner of my eye, a bird circle around me. I didn’t recognize it at first but when it once flew close – its massive wings stretched out side to side while it hovered effortlessly in the upward winds – I remembered my father’s stories of a large rare bird he had encountered on his travels. Aquilus he had called it.
The bird was dark, almost black, with white wing tips and a light brown chest. Its cries were haunting and yet, in more ways than one, felt strangely reassuring. At one point it sat thirty feet above on a ledge looking down. I could not gage its intentions. Was it waiting for me to slip and fall, crashing onto the rocks far below? Or was it curious as to this strange creature clumsily working its way up toward the top. Or maybe it was protecting a nest from an unwanted predator.
The ledge was much bigger than I thought. I could comfortable lay on my back stretched out. There was a puddle of water fed by the same trickle I had encountered below. I drank until a full belly prevented me from taking another sip. This was the place the bird had sat on. It must have come here to drink, I thought. I couldn’t imagine any other reason, especially not one where it would show me a place to take rest. Birds don’t do that.
I lay on my back for a while, my arms stretched to the side. By now, I was three quarters up the cliff. The sun had disappeared behind one of the peaks in the distance. I didn’t want to risk climbing in darkness and decided to stay here for the night. I had two more small fish in my pack. They would have to do.
Before darkness swallowed the land below, I saw the shadow of the large bird again as it circled overhead, sometimes so close I could see its yellow beak; at others so far up, all I saw was a dark spec against a darkening sky.
Its cries followed me into my dreams. I met it again there, in a golden hall with white polished stone for floors and perfectly round pillars reaching up to the painted ceiling. I was one among ten thousand people filling the hall to the rim.
Aquilus, now a statue of gold and black marble, sat on a pedestal, wings outstretched, and beak open in a cry. It was as if a living bird had been dipped in liquid gold and just before its death, a scream had escaped its beak. Its eyes were closed. The bird’s expression was that of utter terror. I could hear its cries as if it urged me to reach into the dream and save it from its fate.
When I opened my eyes, the bird was gone. A new day dawned upon the world. Fog lay below me, diffusing everything in a milky light, as if the dream had spilled into my world, unwilling to let go.
I quenched my thirst with more of the fresh water and began the final climb. When I reached the top at mid day, I could barely move my hands. My legs were numb and my head pounded from exhaustion. But I did not rest. I walked along the ridge toward the two stone towers of which only the top parts were visible.
After a few hours I came to a crevice. It reached all the way down with no way to cross it. On the other side, the walls of the stronghold were built into the rock, flush with the sheer cliff. A wooden, raised draw bridge doubled for a gate. I noticed that I stood on a platform made of smooth sun bleached wood. Two oil lamps stood on either side. They were lit. A pillow in the center invited me to sit. The pillow was of deepest blue. I couldn’t remember ever touching anything so soft.
A crest of golden feathers was embroidered in a circle around its edge. Last night’s dream had already faded and all that was left was the vanishing fragment of a distant memory. It was a feeling more than an image. Like the pull a faraway land has on a traveler, the crest stirred something in me. I felt a sting of yearning, an aching of the heart, as if my mother died in my arms all over again. Tears filled my eyes as I sat down on the pillow. For a moment, it seemed as if I was in two places at once. Here on the mountain top, alone, and at the same time standing in the great golden hall, across a girl, about my age, who wore a tunic with the very same embroidered crest in its center. The girl looked straight at me, her eyes bright blue, her hair falling in black curls around her face. She didn’t smile. She simply looked at me, not as if I was a stranger but someone she knew and welcomed.
The tears continued to come as I waited long into the night. The oil lamps went out. I thought about leaving. But where would I go? Somebody had gone through the trouble of lighting the lamps and bringing out a pillow. I didn’t think the pillow was simply lying here as a permanent fixture of this place. No. Someone had deliberately put it there. For me. Someone must have seen me, watched me from high up in one of the towers. Someone must have decided to welcome me.
But why, now that I was here, would nobody open the draw bridge? As I pondered the question, shifting on my pillow to relax my back, the bridge moved. There was a sound first. A clicking, deep and heavy, followed by the clonk, clonk, clonk of a chain sliding over stone. I had heard this sound once, a few years back, in a settlement north of here. Two elephants had pulled a large piece of roughly cut rock. The chain was tied around the boulder and tightened to a steel and leather harness both elephants shared. As the animals pulled the rock, the chain slid across the rocky ground. Clonk, clonk.
I held my breath as the bridge moved downward, eventually connecting seamlessly with the plateau a few feet away from me. The bridge had left an arched opening. A hooded figure stood in its center holding a lantern in one hand and a wooden staff in another. I wasn’t sure if the staff was there to assist the figure in standing upright or if it was simply a means to hold balance on uneven ground. I myself had used many a stick for walking through rough terrain. The figure was slender, tall, clothed in a robe of deep red. I did not see a face.
There was neither a gesture for me to follow, nor a word to let me know I should come closer. So I got up, took my pack and walked across the bridge. For a short moment, I could feel the depth of the crevice below me. It was as if I crossed a threshold, like the invisible barrier that exists when walking from the cold shadows into the sunlight.
The figure turned and wordlessly walked into a tunnel of stone.
End of Chapter One