A short story.
The Hidden Valley.
An autumn day in the valley…
It seemed that he had always lived in the hidden valley. He had a blurred memory of a time before this, as a young child being carried by his mother along the sea shore, hearing the sound of the waves, seeing a line of clan people ahead of them, a clan whose leader, his mother later told him, was his own father. But that was all he could remember and there was an unreality to it, more a dream than a memory.
His name was Rom and the valley had been his home these past six summers. Sitting at the entrance of the shallow cave where he lived with his mother and his uncle and cousin, he gazed out into the valley, now lit up on the northern slopes and sheer cliffs by the late afternoon sun. Despite the warmth he felt from the sun’s rays, there was a hint of chill to the mid-Autumn day, time to prepare for the coming cold season.
Rom’s mother, Ana, was already doing that, out on the slopes at the far end of the valley, gathering the wild sorghum grass. She needed the seeds for grinding into flour to thicken the soups she cooked, the stalks to be woven into strong thread to be used in making new rabbit skin cloaks for the growing boys. Her brother Gerin was close by, teaching his son Loki how to use one of Gerin’s axes to cut the dead branches of a pine tree for fuel. Rom could hear the sound of the axe echoing in the valley. He would have been out with them now, but two days before, following Loki up a cliff to gather berries, he’d slipped and sprained his ankle. Rom’s cousin Loki was almost two years older than Rom and more agile, already a clever hunter, but as Gerin was observing, not as patient as the younger boy in learning to use and make stone tools.
Gerin was a good teacher. Rom thought about how he had also taught the boys to use a sling shot for hunting, how to hold the two ends of the sling and place a stone in the bulge in the middle, how to whirl the sling and build up the momentum to hurl the stone. At first it was difficult to control direction and distance but with practice the boys learned to hit a target. It was not long before Loki could hit a knot in a tree at twenty paces, then thirty. Rom was not so quick but with practice became almost as proficient as Loki. This was often the way with them, quickness versus patience.
Ana was now returning to the cave, her basket filled with sorghum. Rom put away the rope net he was mending and began preparing the fire for cooking. No need to light a new fire, an ember smoldering in last night’s ashes was quickly brought to life with a scattering of dry leaves and Rom’s breathe.
Setting down her basket Ana asked Rom to show her his ankle. She smiled. ‘No swelling or redness,’ she said, ‘tomorrow you can go with Loki to gather the rest of the acorns.’ Rom looked pleased. He enjoyed visiting the green world of the oak grove in the south-west of the valley, the giant oaks grown from acorns brought to the valley by clan women long ago. He also liked taking the baskets of acorns to the lily pond to soak the acorn nuts in a pool for a day to remove their bitter tannin. The large lily pond, where Loki and Rom sometimes fished for minnows, lay at the foot of the highest cliff, the pond replenished in wet weather by a small water-fall spilling down the cliff.
Rom watched as Ana began preparing their evening meal. This was a favorite time of day for all of them, succulent cooking smells, wild garlic, roasted lily rhizomes, whatever had been gathered during that day, sometimes a small rabbit or pigeon if Loki had been lucky in the hunt. For a small group such as theirs, familiar with its food-plants, the valley was a place of plenty through all seasons except the coldest winter months.
Then there was the enjoyment after the meal, especially in winter when night set in early, the brilliancy of the heavens’ countless stars hidden behind cloud, of telling stories around the fire. The story the boys found most exciting, but one which each boy’s parent did not enjoy telling, was the events of that terrible spring day when the clan departed the hidden valley for the last time.
Three stories of the clan…
As very small children they had heard the story, in part, as Ana and Gerin talked in low voices at the fire at night while Loki and Rom pretended to be asleep. Then when the boys got older, Gerin told them the whole story, how the clan had taken the old path, leaving their winter home in the valley, to move into the forest to hunt game and gather forest plants. For half a morning they had walked along the sea shore until they came to a wooded incline and took a familiar track into the dark shelter of the forest. Another half morning’s walk, the track getting steeper, Gerin, carrying his tools and slowed down by Loki, Ana carrying Rom, were lagging behind and the clan were already out of sight. Suddenly the small group heard sounds of shouting and a woman’s screams. Gerin motioned Ana to take the children and hide in a nearby thicket.
Stealthily Gerin climbed the rise to see what was happening. What he saw made his blood run cold, the clan surrounded and outnumbered by a band of men he’d never seen before. They were a hideous sight, their faces painted with fiery-red pigment and lined with black markings, they looked scarcely human, the effect made more savage by the animal skulls that dangled and rattled from their belts. He saw one of the men raise his club and smite the clan leader, Rom’s father, a mortal blow. Gerin watched no longer. Slithering down the hill he sped to the thicket where Ana and the children were hiding. The look on his face conveyed his message before he spoke: ‘We must go, Gerin whispered, ‘and quickly!’
They fled by a different route to the well-used track, a longer and more difficult way through the underbrush, but more concealed. Stopping only once to drink from a brook, it took them all afternoon to reach the sea shore. The sun was already setting, less danger of being followed now. They made for the water’s edge, Gerin brushing away their tell-tale footprints down to the sea.
Through the night Ana and Gerin walked along the shore, carrying the children, who slept, then woke, feeling the adults’ urgency, and slept again. It was past midnight when at last they reached the hidden valley. While the children slept in the cave, Gerin and Ana worked to conceal their presence, erasing footprints to the valley entrance, hiding it with pine branches.
For several days, after this, Gerin regularly surveyed the coast for signs of the painted men. They were men of the inland, unfamiliar with the sea … they had no women with them … they were on a raid … He hoped that they would return to where they came from but he could not be certain … They did not come. When Gerin recounted these words, Rom and Loki would shiver and drew closer to the fire. But for the boys it was more a frightening story than a real event, for Ana and Gerin, it was a painful experience to be recorded in the telling.
The first time Gerin had told them of the death of the clan, he had said that when Loki and Rom were old enough to make the difficult journey, he and Ana and the children would trek to the Great River and join the gathering of the clan by all its family groups at a ritual and trading meeting that only happened on certain times of the harvest moon.
Leaving the valley, thought Rom, would be like another clan story of departure, told at the fire by Ana and Gerin, the clan’s journey long ago from the cold north, following the silent reindeer across the ice, traveling south to find a new home. The story was always accompanied by a clan song, sung by Ana in a clear, high voice, accompanied by three stamps of the foot at significant moments. Sometimes Loki and Rom would join in with piping voices.
There was a later story too, of the discovery of the hidden valley, the clan’s winter shelter, a story passed down by Ana and Gerin’s grandfather from his grandfather, of how two clan boys, climbing over the rocks, had come across the hidden crevice in the cliffs, just wide enough to allow a man to enter the valley. The clan had passed this way before but never seen the entrance, the south-eastern wall curving in front of the south-western cliff face so that the entrance was difficult to find. In telling this story, recalling happy times with the clan, Ana and Gerins’ faces would light up and their voices become animated.
For Rom and Loki, memories of their early childhood in the hidden valley, were especially joyful. Memories of exploring the valley together and playing on the beach outside the valley, digging in the sand, and in warm weather, learning to swim in clear rock pools when the tide was out. And there was the food! Mussels, small crabs, fish that Gerin and Ana caught in the clan nets, helped by the boys splashing and shouting in tidal pools, driving the fish into the nets. Ana would cook the fish on hot rocks in the fire, Rom’s favorite food.
But this was to come to an end. That was a story that Loki would tell, the night of the earthquake, three years ago. As the main actor, it was Loki’s story and he always told it in exact order and with the same words, for this was also clan story. After they’d eaten dinner that night, Rom asked Loki to tell it once more.
Loki’s story and the aftermath…
Standing with his back to the fire, Locki began the story:
‘There had been a bad storm that night that kept us awake, but at last it was over and we fell asleep. We had not been sleeping long when a loud rumbling sound woke us up. We thought it was thunder but then we felt the ground shaking. ‘It’s an earthquake!’ cried Ana. She had been in one before. Then Gerin told us we must move as far from the cliffs and trees as we could, and so we ran into the middle of the valley. We didn’t know what to do but Gerin told us to sit in a circle, facing outward and holding hands. We didn’t know if this would help if the earth cracked open, perhaps the spirits were telling us how to be safe. The earth shook and rumbled again and again, there was so much noise, around us, beneath us, but at last it stopped. We did not dare return to the cave and after a while we fell asleep where we were.
I, Loki, was the first to wake up. No birds singing, perhaps they had flown away. I wanted to see what had happened to our valley. It didn’t look too bad. Some fallen rocks, a line of uprooted shrubs, the cave was the same, a tall pine not far from the entrance was leaning to the sea a bit but it was still standing. Then I saw what had happened.’ Loki paused. ‘The rock cliffs had come together. There was no crevice in the rocks, no way out of the valley. ‘Father, Father,’ I called and he came. Ana came and Rom too. We all looked and looked but there was no crevice …’ Here Loki paused again, as he always did, then added, ‘And so we are closed up in the valley. But one day we will find a way out.’
After Loki finished the story, there was silence, as there always was, each of the group thinking their own thoughts. Rom thought about how the earthquake closing their entrance to the outside world had changed how he felt about the valley. It was still his home and he loved it as a home, but now he was aware of it as something else, an enclosure, preventing them from doing anything new, from meeting with the rest of the clan. He had to find a way that they could escape.
A few days after the earthquake, Gerin and Ana had spoken with the boys. There was a new urgency to life in the valley. They hoped a way could be found out of the valley but in the meantime it was important to pass down their clan learning to the boys, make them skilled, not only in clan man -knowledge, tool-making and hunting skills, but woman-knowledge as well, for one day in future, there would be no woman to prepare the food or know the healing properties of plants that Ana had learned from other clan women.
And so began more vigorous training than before, less time for play, and now, three years after the earthquake, Rom, and even Loki had taken on some of their parents’ seriousness and thoughts for the future.
It became a monthly ritual for Gerin and the two boys to walk the perimeter of the valley studying outcrops and niches in the cliffs, looking for a navigable path to the top. There was a place on the north cliff where goats made sorties down the cliff-face to forage on nettles and the young cherry tree seedlings that grew from seeds that spilled down the cliff from the trees above. Loki was sure that he could climb it if he could get a fishing net to a certain rocky outbreak and swing it across a gap to catch on to the rock, look, there, he pointed. ‘Even if you could haul the net there,’ said Gerin ‘it would be too dangerous.’
Rom agreed, but one day when he and Gerin sat napping flints, he said, ‘I know it’s dangerous, but if it’s a way out we should think about it. If the rope net wasn’t so heavy, if it was not as wide, but longer, it would help us climb. Rom didn’t know it but he was inventing a new use for the fishing net as a rope ladder. He drew in the dirt to show Gerin what he meant. Gerin nodded. ‘We can make it,’ he said, ‘we can burn off parts of the net and bind them together, we’ll start tomorrow. But it’s still dangerous and we should keep our thinking free to look for another way to escape. That leaning tree, for instance, if we got it to fall, it would need to fall across the peak. Is it tall enough to reach the cliff do you think?’
Winter comes to the valley…
The search for an escape route from the valley was interrupted by the arrival of a fierce winter. This was not a time to leave the shelter of the valley or even the cave in the worst weather. Gerin and the boys used those days by the camp fire to make the rope ladder and were proud of their efforts, but that was all they were able to do. The weeks passed. Both Ana and Gerin developed a cough but Ana’s was much worse. She dosed herself with tea made from cherry bark to relieve her hacking cough, and when she became too ill to leave her bed, Rom pounded and soaked the bark to make the tea for Ana. Rom also cooked the evening meal. Loki brought armfuls of fire wood and Gerin heated water to make a steam inhalant to ease Ana’s breathing. Gerin was worried about Ana. In cold winters failing lungs had been a common cause of death in the clan, and Ana’s breathing was becoming labored.
There was one night when they all knew Ana was worse. She tried to sit up to breathe the steam inhalant Rom held before her, but fell back… ‘Rom,’ she whispered, ‘you must all leave the valley!’ And she spoke no more…
They buried Ana on the slopes of the north cliff, a place touched by the last rays of the setting sun. There were no flowers to strew upon her grave but each of them placed something there that they valued. For Gerin it was a stone digging tool he had been making for Ana, for Loki a sea-shell he had worn as a talisman. Rom placed on Ana’s grave a small wooden bird he had whittled sitting around the fire the previous winter and which Ana had liked.
Each of them mourned Ana deeply, Rom, as her son, Loki too, for Ana was the only mother he had ever known. For days and weeks they could think of little else. Gerin’s grieving was sharpened by memories of his sister as the golden-haired, laughing girl who had married the clan leader, so different then from the serious woman she became after the death of her beloved husband and the rest of the clan. Sitting at the fire, on the long winter nights, Gerin thought about his family and how, as sometimes happens, the child of one parent resembles a brother or sister, as Loki resembled Ana, and as Rom, though blue-eyed like his father, resembled Gerin, not just the curly black hair, but in his considered way of going about things, whereas quick, carefree Loki … Thinking about the boys made Gerin sadder, ‘I am responsible for them both now,’ he thought, ‘I must try to do the best I can for them…’
Strangely it was Rom who broke the cycle of mourning and apathy. One late winter morning as the sun did its best to break through layers of cloud, Rom got up from his bed and lit the fire, heating the remains of last night’s meal. As Gerin and Loki came to the fire, he said, ‘Remember what my mother told us to do. Today we should begin finding a way. That is what she would want, and I think I know what might work.’ As Rom spoke, suddenly, as though Nature was in agreement, the sun broke through the clouds, bathing the valley in bright sunshine.
They followed Rom down to the leaning pine tree.
‘I’d been thinking of this for a while,’ he said, ‘it’s already leaning the way we want and I’ve thought of a way we can go about it.’
‘We’ll need to make sure the tree can reach the cliff.’ said Gerin.
‘I could climb to the top,’ said Loki, ‘I could take a long stick to mark on the way up.’
‘Yes Loki,’ Rom replied, ‘but there’s an easier way. Remember how we used to watch our shadows when we were young? How they’d grow long or become small, but in the middle of the morning our shadows would be the same size as us?’
‘Rom, I know what you’re saying,’said Gerin, ‘the tree’s shadow will also be the right size.’
‘And here’s the sun shining so let’s find out,’ said Loki, smiling.
At first, the boys’ shadows were too long, but after a while, measuring Loki and Rom and their shadows with a stick, Gerin pronounced a fit. Taking a length of rope, they measured the pine tree’s shadow. Three lengths and a bit. They tied a cord at ‘the bit’. Using the rope they measured the space between the tree and the cliff, a fit and with ‘a good bit’ to spare. They could do it!
In the next three days, they started to dig a hole on the far side of the tree. It was slow work, removing stones and the ground was still winter hard. Loki and Rom brought skins full of water from the pond to soften the ground, and that helped. They ceased work only to carry out the usual tasks, though Loki would sometimes disappear for a while, testing the lower reaches of the north cliff face which he still had thoughts of climbing.
Spring had come early with fine days but on the fourth day there was a return to cold weather. Rom noticed that Loki was not around. Now skilled in the use of the sling shot, maybe Loki would return with a rabbit for the pot.
But still he didn’t come. Gerin went out to look for him. Suddenly Rom heard Gerin cry out. Rom gasped. He couldn’t move. A premonition… Then he was running towards the cliff face, gulping back sobs, as he ran calling Loki’s name.
At the cliff face he saw him, a crumpled heap, the net still held in one hand, Gerin bending over him, weeping and distraught. ‘My beautiful boy, oh my beautiful boy!’ How to bear such pain. Blinded by his tears, Rom knelt and touched Loki’s white face, cold to the feel. He put his arms around Gerin’s shoulders. How long they stayed there Rom did not know. It grew dark. ‘Come, Gerin, he said, we must carry Loki to the cave.’
Gerin stood up as if in a dream, and lifted Loki in his arms. Rom led the way, supporting Gerin with his right arm and they staggered to the cave.
How he and Gerin got through the next few days Rom did not know. They placed Loki on his fur rug, he seemed asleep, his dark eyes closed, the golden hair strewn across the dark fur. Only a bruising on the slender neck gave hint of his injuries.
The day they buried Loki in a grave beside Ana, the valley was engulfed in fog. It was as though the fog was in themselves. They went though the ritual in a kind of mental haze. Then Rom helped Gerin back to the cave. That night, Gerin’s cough returned. In the next two days he grew weaker. Rom was roused from his own sorrow by the urgent need to look after Gerin. He could not lose Gerin too, he must make sure he recovered. His uncle would need nourishing food and medicine.
Keeping the fire burning, Rom became Ana, the brewer of medicinal teas and Loki the hunter. Climbing the cliffs he gathered the special plants Ana used for her medicine, the cherry bark and the fennel that acted as a mild sedative. He prepared them as Ana used to do … No time to hunt game with the sling shot, instead a Loki trick. Scattering grain beneath one of the oak trees, he climbed with the rope fishing-net to a low branch of the tree, the net partly concealing him as he crouched along the branch holding the net ready to throw. Before long several pigeons found the grain and began eating it. They did not see the boy in the tree. Quickly Rom dropped the net. Most of the birds flew away but two were held in his net. And were soon in his cooking pot.
Medicine and good food had an effect. Over the next two days Gerin was a little better, but the spirit had gone out of him. ‘He doesn’t care about living,’ thought Rom. ‘He will not get better unless he wants to live.’ All morning Rom thought about what to do. Then he knew.
That night as Gerin sat with Rom at the fire, Rom said to him:
‘I have been thinking, my uncle. When we said goodbye to Loki we were too overcome by sorrow to say those things we needed to say. I do not know whether Loki, or my mother were telling me this, but a voice inside me has told me to make a song, – it is a song about Loki, and his father too…
Then standing with his back to the fire, Rom began to sing. Both Rom and Loki had inherited Ana’s beautiful high voice, but the boys’ treble voices were more ethereal, as boys’ treble voices often are. Rom sang of the loss of a son, taken to the spirit world before his time. He sang of how the spirits of wind, water and fire had snatched Loki from Gerin and Rom because they loved his quickness and his grace. Rom’s voice soared, an unearthly sound that made Gerin think of the spirits of wind, water and air, and of Loki too.
Rom’s voice took on a happier tone. ‘But part of Loki did not go with them. We have that part of him here in our thoughts, memories of things he did, taught by Gerin, father of Loki, his teacher in so many ways.’
Rom described such moments in notes that cascaded and danced like Loki himself. At the end he sang of Loki’s courage, passed on from father to son:
‘Loki, we see you, climbing the cliff to find a way for us to journey on, then taken by the spirits, but we can hear you saying to us, ‘Father and Rom, it is time to leave the valley and wherever you go, part of me will journey with you.’’
As Rom was singing, a change came over Gerin. His shoulders straightened, life came back to his eyes. ‘Rom,’ he said, ‘your song has made our loss more bearable for me.’
The next day was the first truly golden day of Spring. Unfurling of leaves in the oak trees, the sky that powder blue with faint puffs of cloud that comes with Spring. Rom asked Gerin to accompany him to the digging site, the sunshine would do him good. And now Gerin sat watching Rom, using one of Gerin’s stone axes, hacking at one of the exposed roots of the giant pine. After a while Gerin said, ‘Let me do that.’ Rom was pleased. ‘I’ll get some water while you’re cutting it.
Rom turned from the pond to hear a creaking sound and saw that the pine was now dangerously leaning closer to the cliff. ‘Gerin,‘ he shouted, ‘you did it!’
‘Not yet.’ replied Gerin. ‘But cutting this other root should do it, and that is for you to do, Rom, as it should be.’
A few sharp blows, a cracking sound, and then a mighty crash. The tree had fallen. Rom and Gerin hurried to see – ‘We did it!’ said Rom. ‘Yes,’ said Gerin, ‘we did it.’
Rom became Loki again, climbing to the top of the tree to see how it had fallen. The spiky upper trunk was not so thin that it could not bear his weight. Resting on the cliff, Rom gazed on the sea in all its expanse of blue, even bluer than he had remembered.
The cliff peak was not so narrow that he could not crawl carefully along it. Something he had remembered was an out crop of rock that rose from the beach halfway up the cliff face. It was not far from where the tree had fallen on the cliff top. As small boys, Rom and Loki had climbed it. This would be the way down. He looked down. A rope net hung from the peak down the sheer cliff face could just about reach the outcrop.
The next two days were spent by Gerin and Rom in preparations for the journey, and by Rom, arguing with Gerin. Gerin had decided that Rom should go alone. Gerin was too weak as yet to make the journey, Rom would travel faster without him, he would wait for Rom’s return.
Rom argued in vain. At last he said he would go but only if Gerin promised that he would keep well and cheerful, cooking nourishing food, keep busy making tools …
‘I promise I will do as you say, my dear son, ‘said Gerin, ‘but now you must go.’
Rom had been depositing his tools, flints, his skin cape and dried food for the journey down the cliff on to the beach. His sling was over his shoulder. Now there was nothing in his hands to hinder his climb. Gerin accompanied him to the cliff top and said goodbye. There were tears in his eyes, but he was smiling.
Exodus – again…
It was mid-morning when Rom began his journey. With one long look at Gerin and the walls of the valley that had been his home, he turned towards the west and set off along the sea-shore, his first steps towards the Great River. So many conflicting thoughts and feelings. ‘Concentrate on the task,’ he said to himself, ‘don’t let fear or sadness take over your thinking.’ He began to sing, the song of the silent reindeer and the traveling clan. He picked up some pebbles for his sling and walked on.
Well after mid-day he stopped to rest and drink from the flask he carried in his sack. As he looked back at the long coastline, he saw something moving on the shoreline, it was too far away to see what it was. A figure? He started to walk towards it …Yes, a figure, he saw it raise an arm and wave. It was Gerin.
‘Gerin! ‘ he shouted and hurried to meet him. In that glad moment it seemed to Rom that Ana and Loki were with him and shared his joy. ‘Tomorrow,’ he thought, we will all journey to the Great River.’