Road Through Woods by Betsy James with permission.
When Hally Kass died, his father put a bridge in his hand.
Anyone would have said it was a reed, the jointed kind that Hally, when he was small, had liked to pull apart and put back together. But it was a bridge, and when his father laid it–it was about eight inches long–on his son’s chest and wrapped his cool fingers around it, he told Hally how he was to use it.
“Go out the door,” he said. “Turn east and follow the road to the mountain. Any being you meet is a demon. Don’t speak.” A willow twig, burned to charcoal, had been laid between the boy’s lips to remind him of what, now, he was.
“At the chasm where the road ends, lay the bridge down. Cross it,” his father said, “and follow the upward path. Your uncles will meet you in paradise.” With a bitter look he pulled the last fold of linen over his son’s face. “Do as I say.”
Hally, who in his ten years had rarely done what his father said, was silent. His father nodded to the weeping women, gathered up the narrow little corpse, and carried it away, followed by the mourners. Nothing was left in the whitewashed room but the rug where Hally had been laid and Hally himself, stretched on a roof beam, afraid to climb down and go out the door.
Death had been a shift of light, much like the shift he could make happen to the glint on a trout stream by keeping his head close to the water and gazing across the wrinkled surface. He had been good at catching trout. Flat on his belly in the reeds, he knew how to slip his arm under the turfy bank where the fish, none much longer than his hand, hid with their noses turned to the slight current, fins flicking his palm. How to curl his fingers around a slender body, then Squeeze! Flip! and the trout was jumping on the airy bank. But mostly he had liked just to lie there, the delicate fish-flanks nudging his hand, and dream across the water at the crinkled light.
That was not what death was like at first. He had been the fish: frantic, bowing and leaping in a world utterly strange, in spite of how much his elders had talked about it. Then the light changed and he found himself sprawled like a cat on one of the rafters from which his aunties hung corn and herbs to dry, and which he had more than once been whipped for climbing. While in the room below his mother screamed, his aunties restrained her, and the wooden bowl of medicine spun across the floor and turned over, Hally had lain on the rafter as on the stream bank, in a dream, his cheek on the back of his hand. His family darted about the boy below who lay still, eyes and mouth half-open. They had washed that boy and wrapped him and put the stick of charcoal between his lips. They wept all night. But it was not until his father folded his son’s fingers around the bridge that Hally-on-the-rafter sat up slowly, the reed in his hand, and took the stick of charcoal out of his mouth.
Yet that same reed and charcoal lay with the boy below.
“Go out the door,” his father said to that other boy. “Don’t talk to anybody. Do as I say”
Carrying him, they left him, in that strange light like the sparkle on water.
Hally climbed down from the rafter.
He understood that he had died, yet did not understand, because he was not dead.
The weeping, the washing of that other boy had felt dreamy, like the time between sleep and waking. Now he was awake. In a white garment softer than any he had worn in life he ran after the mourners, thinking to catch his mother’s sleeve, to dodge the slap his father would deliver for being so disobedient as to die.
But his uncles and boy-cousins walked alongside the procession swinging censers whose oily smoke was to keep him, the dead, from touching his living brothers and sisters. He could no more breathe that smoke than fish breathe air. He fell back and stood in the mica-sparkled dust of the road watching the clot of walkers dwindle westward down the canyon, toward the cremation ground.
He had not expected to die and be shut out. For nothing—just a morning fever that turned nasty and beat him, like a heavy kid at wrestling. He should have been able to get up; instead he was dead, and they did not want him.
He cried softly. It was unfair, and like most unfair things there was nothing he could do about it. He stood in the road holding his reed and his charcoal. Then, as his father had bidden him, he turned toward the east.
The road of the dead would be gray and stony, strewn with broken rock. This he knew from his father and uncles. He had never much listened to their anxious talk but slipped away, a minnow between fingers, to run and wade and drowse in the tall grass. Still, he had heard enough to know how it would be.
But it was not.
He had turned east all right: the sun, sleepy and red, rose over the notch in the mountain that marked the spring equinox. But the road was not stony or gray. It was just the road, and except for that odd light the same as always: dusty and rutted and dotted with mule droppings, the road he had escaped down ever since he could run fast enough. All his life he had run east a little and then, on bare feet hard as a goat’s hooves, sprang left into the scratty brush and plunged down the slope, through oak and wild currant and thorny laurel, to the stream. There he ranged upstream or down, following the water.
No one ever came after him. At the stream he was safe from prayer and ritual and task, until hunger drove him home to be duly upbraided and beaten before he could blend back into the crowd of village boys. At the stream he had scrambled, dreamed, set deadfalls to catch squirrels, built dams, eaten wild raspberry and thimbleberry with the bears. He had lain for hours with his arm in water that was chill but not icy, dreaming in the glinty light while the speckled trout rubbed along his palm as if he were himself a fish. He lay so still that they slipped out from under the bank and hung gilling in the open, gazing at him with peaceful flat eyes.
Scratched, dirty, wordless, he had climbed back to the bend in the road and dawdled home. Now he turned to the road that was not as they had said it would be and began to walk east, weeping a little, watching for demons.
The first showed itself in the shape of a lame fox that trotted the dusty verge as if
the road were built for his own use. He carried a skinny spring squirrel in his mouth. When he saw Hally he jumped sideways, but did not run as a fox would. He sat down like a hound, laid the squirrel in the dust, and said, “Hey there!”
It was not in human language he said this. Hally gripped his reed and charcoal and kept walking. He watched the fox out of the corner of his eye. He knew him: knew his musk among the skunk cabbage, knew his den in the aspen, knew that his she-fox had borne three kits that spring. The fox was lame from a snap-trap set by Hally’s oldest brother; in his mousing along the stream, Hally had found the trap sprung, two clawed toes still in its jaws.
“Hey, little brother,” said the fox.
The uncles had described what torture by demons was like: with wolves’ teeth they ripped flesh from bone. Certainly Hally would not speak.
The fox grinned. “Gnawed off your own foot, eh?”
Hally said nothing.
“Nice to see you here.” The fox picked up the squirrel, turned off the road, and leapt downhill toward the stream.
Hally went on, sidling a little to keep an eye on where the fox had gone. East, east; at the bend in the track it was still the same road, the same wood with buds breaking into green frills on the twigs. Once around the bend he lost sight of the village, yet down in the canyon the stream chuckled as it always had.
From high in the aspens came a different chuckle.
He held the reed close to his chest. In the lattice of budding branches a heavy- shouldered shape blocked the morning light. A vulture. She looked at Hally with her right eye. Then her left eye, ancient in wrinkled pink flesh.
“Here you are,” she said.
In the meadow by the stream Hally had seen a vulture—perhaps this one—tearing at a winter-killed deer, her head buried in the reeking corpse. It was from horror of vultures that his uncles gave the dead to fire. Hally clutched the charcoal like a talisman.
The vulture scratched her neck with one toe. “Mites,” she said. “Always a problem. That’s life. Know where you’re going?”
Hally drew breath to say, East. Remembered he was not to talk. And what is the tongue of the dead?
“Not that it matters,” said the vulture. “All of us are everybody, sooner or later. Good to see you on the loose, boy.” She had another scratch, rattled her feathers, sprang from the branch, and sailed out over the canyon, wobbling a little.
Hally walked on, biting his lip. He had nearly spoken. The quirky light grew darker as the aspen gave way to pole pine, tall and black. Under the vulture’s shadow the stream murmured unseen.
Under the branches, low, another shadow.
Hally knew who she was. She crouched.
“Ahh,” she said. The end of her tail twitched.
He had seen her, but far away. Far away was good. He did not run; from her one did not run. He dropped his eyes from her yellow ones. Slowly, never looking up, he began to step backward down the road, toward the village.
They had driven him from the village.
He stood still.
The lioness crept out of the shadows. Crackle of brush, one paw, then another.
“Little one,” she said. “All alone.”
Say nothing. Say nothing.
Only for an instant he glanced up, but her eyes had him, he could not look away.
She crept to him as cat to bird. “Meat is sweet,” she said.
Prayers. He should say prayers. Could remember none. The stream prattled. Every hair on his body stood straight up.
She crept to him, sniffing with open mouth as a cat does. “Here. Now,” she said.
She nudged him with her shoulder, her cheek. He staggered. She looked at him with scorn, he thought. “Sometime,” she said, and in three soft steps she slipped into the canyon, the rocky slope that fell toward the stream.
The road went on east. When he had stopped trembling he followed it. The woods were busy. A squirrel hailed him rudely. A doe paused and spoke, but so quietly he did not understand. A badger in ill temper spared a glance and a mutter. An owl on a branch, waked to sunlight, groaned, “Night or day, child? Night or day?” and floated off, noiseless as a flake of ash.
He knew them all. Through long, unspeaking days by the stream he had seen the raven and the bear, the mouse and the green beetle who now, wandering here and there at their work, met him on the road and said, “It’s you, eh? Quite a day!” The lizard, the wren, the weasel in her shiny coat—had they always spoken? Had they always been demons, and he saved only because he could not understand them? Demons swarm the sinner, his father said. They chatter, they clamor to speak.
But so do neighbors.
A jay jeered. A garter snake rose from weaving in the dust and said, “Ssay! Ssee?
Hally spoke to none of them. He walked on in the sparkling light that fell in blinks and patches even where the trees were darkest. Mica glittered in the dust. Wind stirred the pine branches, and the last of last year’s aspen leaves twinkled down, making room for spring. The stream tinkled.
He broke out of the tunnel of pines.
To his right the hillside went up in birch and bramble; to his left it fell away to the canyon, whose the far wall was a palisade above red talus dotted with scrub. At the canyon bottom the stream, a silver cord, looped and curved through meadows and overgrown beaver dams.
Directly ahead of him was the holy mountain. There at last the road changed.
There the way was suddenly steep: not a road but a path, narrow and gray, littered with stones sharp-edged as broken glass. The woods on either side of that far track were brittle, somber, still. No breeze nudged them. No bird flicked from branch to branch. The new light, which until now had quivered like the trout stream, on those stones fell hard and sharp.
He picked his way forward. He could not see where the change in the road happened. Then he could. The chasm, his father said.
He crept to the edge.
Gray stone, a blue gulf of air dizzying down. Bottomless, void. From its depths no stream spoke. A wind blew, low and constant, like speech not quite words.
He looked across. Looked up. Against the black slope the path was powder-pale, up, up, past cliff and crag and brittle pinnacle to gray parapets among trailing clouds.
There they were: his uncles and grandfathers, also gray in their robes and beards, leaning over the ramparts. They watched him. Their beards wagged as they said something he could not hear. When he climbed to the wall they would catch his hands, his father said, and draw him in, and he would be home for eternity. Somewhere behind them in the women’s quarters his aunties and grandmothers would be waiting, perhaps with dinner. What did people eat in paradise? What did they drink?
Lay the bridge down. Cross.
But the bridge was a reed, eight inches long.
He stepped backward until he stood again in the world of quivering light, of canyon and stream and voices.
Something buzzed at his ear. A fly with iridescent wings lit on his shoulder and preened its back legs.
“This day, brother,” it said. It sprang away, looped twice in the air, settled again. “Here.”
He could have smashed it with a blow. If he had been a trout he could have snapped it up; if he had been a trout the lion could have snapped him up. If he had not died he could have eaten the trout, and if his uncles had not burned his body the vulture could have eaten him.
And then what? What became of vulture shit, in the demon world where everyone ate one another, and everyone spoke, and the stream ran summer and winter, and the little fish slept under ice and woke to spring?
“Here we are,” said the fly.
Ssay, ssee, sso.
Hally stepped back to the chasm. Dizzy down depths, massy with cloud or steam. He tried not to look. He set one end of the reed on the stone between his bare feet and tipped the other end toward paradise.
The reed grew long, grew wide. It leaned, fell, and bridged the void like a log, green on Hally’s end, pearly gray where it touched the stone of the upward path.
He had crossed the stream on fallen logs a thousand thousand times. He had fished from them, even slept on them, sprawled and drowsy, watching the water below. If the log was icy or too narrow he had sat down and hitched himself across.
He wondered whether, when he touched the other bank, he would turn gray like the bridge and his uncles, whether he would get a beard and a stern look and be able to tell boys what to do. Would there be boys?
He put one bare foot on the bridge.
On the high ramparts the uncles leaned, watching.
He nudged the bridge with his foot. It was firm. He had to put down the charcoal, and even then it took both hands and all the strength in his back to wrestle the end of the bridge to the edge so that with one last shove it fell, tumbling end over end into the void.
He did not look to see where it fell, or at the uncles. He threw the charcoal after the bridge and scrabbled backward until he could squat in the brilliant dust and sob, wiping his eyes with his fists.
The fly returned. It perched on his wet knuckle and drank. “So it is,” it said.
Hally stood. He followed the road back around the curve and then left it, picked his way down through the bushes of the canyon slope as he had done all his life, down and down among the voices of crow, late chickadee, and early swallow. A wild turkey hailed him, a young bear, a worm. Among the reeds of the stream bank he pulled off the white garment, which dissolved into the smoke it was, and slipped into the water.
In the new light of the new world he became a little trout under the bank, nuzzling fin to delicate fin, gilling, thinking trout thoughts. Like his companions he opened and shut his mouth, but what he said was heard only by boys, those on the long road.
Betsy James is the author and illustrator of seventeen books for adults and children. Among other honors, her books have been named: Tiptree Award Honor Book; New York Public Library Best Book for Teens; Voices of Youth Advocates Best Book; Junior Library Guild Selection; Canadian Children’s Book Center Best Book; and International Reading Association Children’s Choice. She facilitates writers’ workshops nationally and internationally. Check out her latest review here and buy her latest book here. Road Souls has been short-listed for the World Fantasy Award.
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