All sorrows can be borne if you can put them into a story.
Up in the mountains there was a small community. Now, for many years, people came and went when they wanted, as they wished. Sometimes the families came together for months, to visit around and tell stories, to dance, to laugh and tease each other. Once in a while, one or two might even fall in love. Other times, families would head out trapping, curl up around the fire, walk all day and fall asleep exhausted at night. In those times, when a visitor came, it lit up the night, and when no one was around, the soft comfort of those you knew well from birth surrounded you like snow on the landscape. Rarely, but memorably, this routine would be broken by the arrival of another family, seeking help and medicines for someone who had fallen ill, or who had developed the sickness during the long winter. Sometimes, someone would know the right medicine and the prayers would work, and other times, a death would rend all continuity for awhile.
Time went on and the ravenous people who had spread throughout the lakes and plains below grew hungry again. They travelled up to the mountains seeking coal, and, finding it, promised they would not bother the mountain people as they satisfied their terrible appetites. The mountain people agreed to let the ravenous ones live among them, but quickly, as they had been warned by relatives and friends from farther away, the ravenous people multiplied and settled there. Promises were made and settlements built. In time, the mountain people came to learn that the ravenous people were both good and bad, both harsh and kind, just as among their own people. The only thing that distinguished them was their immobility and their unending appetite for accumulation.
Soon, a curious thing began to occur. While some mountain people flowed in and out from the bush, others settled into the routines of the ravenous ones, worked at their endeavors for money, even tried out and borrowed their habits and vices. Still others fluctuated back and forth, depending on the ease of the wage work, or the scarcity of game. A darkness settled upon the mountain people. A heaviness they could not explain soaked into their lives. Some began to try alcohol; some began to rely on it. The ravenous people built their ravenous schools and first invited, then insisted the mountain people’s children spend their days learning their ravenous ways. Some of the ways were amazing: the ravenous peoples, being ravenous for everything, had much knowledge, from all parts of the world. Because the ravenous people accumulated, rather than shared, all their knowledge was jealously guarded by their language, in their particular works and structures. Slowly, the mountain people’s children learned the language, the works and structures. Slowly, the vast accumulated knowledge of the ravenous made the mountain people’s children hesitate when they listened to the knowledge shared by their parents, their relatives. Some refused to speak the language of their parents, some took on the uncomfortable role of translator, endlessly explaining things to their parents as the ravenous ways endlessly encroached into their lives. Still others despaired. It was the long dark time.
Strange things happened in the long dark time. This is a story of Claire, a girl when the dark time descended. Medicines did not always work in the dark time. Things that had always been true turned on their head. Claire grew up in the dark time, learning the ravenous people’s accumulated knowledge, hesitating when she heard the language of her parents, which was comforting, but could not encompass all the knowledge she learned to gather, and spoke of knowledge that did not match the ravenous ways of knowing. Meanwhile, a strange dark shadow swept across the community. People would drink alcohol and shape shift into monsters, who did unspeakable things to those they loved. Children, and adults, learned to run and hide, learned to lock their doors when the transformations took place. But there was not always time, and it was so hard to see when someone you loved had turned; the physical change was so subtle. Not surprisingly, children, and adults, would still get hurt, no matter how careful they were.
One day, when Claire was in that awkward in-between stage, not still a child but not yet a woman, she thought she saw her uncle coming to say hi, and didn’t notice the tell-tale signs of the sickness, a subtle shift in his walking, messy hair and the buttons on his shirt done up wrong – and maybe what looked like a bite mark on his lower lip. Before she could get away, he grabbed her and tore a chunk off her right arm. Claire would have screamed in pain, but she was in shock. This was her beloved uncle, and she had heard stories about him as a child, as a boy who made her mom laugh with his escapades, a boy who could mimic the sound of any animal alive. So instead she watched him chewing on her flesh and felt the blood dripping from her arm, and wept. Finally, when he reached for her again, she came to her senses and ran from there. When she got home, she saw her mom’s eye flicker to the gaping wound in her arm, saw the knowing there. She wished her mom would run to her and bandage the arm, but instead her mom turned her face away from the sight. Her mom could not bear to see the shape of her brother’s teeth in her child’s arm, the brother who made her laugh with his escapades and could mimic the sound of any animal alive. Next, Claire crept into her sister’s room to ask her for help, but when her sister saw her wound she began to cry, and simply pulled up her pant leg to reveal a similar wound, weeks old but still festering from lack of care, in the shape of their father’s mouth. Claire reeled back in horror and ran from the house. She ran for a very very long time, past the houses of everyone she knew and loved, past the ravenous people’s homes, past the black smoking plant where they sucked up and devoured the very insides of the mountains.
At a last she came to a bank of a river and exhausted, fell asleep. When she slept she dreamt. A very old woman sat beside her by the river, holding a crying baby. She seemed to be digging in the riverbank for something. Claire crept forward to watch. The old woman looked strangely familiar, like she had known her all her life. The old woman noticed her and smiled. Ah, she said, you’ve come to watch me now, after all these times I’ve been watching you. Claire didn’t understand, but felt warm and safe, so smiled blearily. The old woman handed her the baby and finished what she was doing in the dirt. The baby screamed and struggled in Claire’s arms, and she felt the ripping pain of the bite out of her right arm when she moved. She winced, and the old woman looked up at her in alarm. Ah, she said sadly, you are hurting then. What a horrible thing to have happen to you. She took the white dirt she had gathered in her hand and applied it to the baby’s gums, who immediately stopped his wailing and slept. Sweet dirt, she told Claire. I wonder? Would it help you too with the pain from teeth? She laid the baby down gently beside her. Carefully she poured water from the river over Claire’s wound, and then packed it with the white dirt. I don’t know, she said, maybe, maybe not. But that’s all we can do for now. It is the time of darkness. It is the time of darkness, she said again, but the darkness will not last forever. It is not all there is. We must remember that too.
Claire woke up alone by the river. There was no white dirt in the wound and there was no old woman. Her arm ached. She walked down to where she had seen the old woman digging in the bank, and sure enough, she saw the soft white dirt she had brought to her. Claire walked down to the river and washed her arm, just as the old woman had in her dream. Then she walked back up to the sweet dirt and packed it in the bite mark, just as the old woman had. It looked a bit funny, but it did seem to make the ache a bit less. She picked up another handful and put it in her pocket for later. She was all alone, but for some reason she didn’t feel all alone anymore. She wondered if the old woman was watching her.
Claire walked back into her life and her dad immediately smacked her on the face. Your mom says you were playing around where you shouldn’t he said angrily, what do you expect if you do things like that? From now on, just stay home. Claire thought about the bite wound on her sister’s leg and ducked past him into the kitchen. Her mom was making supper and wouldn’t look at her when she came in. Her sister was sitting at the table playing solitaire. Claire wanted to tell her sister about the sweet dirt, but her sister looked like she had been crying and wouldn’t look up at her either. She slipped out the back door but she didn’t feel like running anymore. She pulled her sleeve down to make sure the bite wound packed with sweet dirt didn’t show, and she walked to go visit her cousin, Sky. Sky was always laughing and right then she was laughing over a comic she was reading. Claire settled in beside her and was amazed to find herself laughing too. Here she had thought she might never laugh again, only earlier that day. A little later that day she rolled over on the grass and caught sight of a bite mark on Sky’s skinny ankle.
She felt sad, but the memory of the old woman and the laughter from the comic book was still with her. She told Sky the whole story, of her bite, her dream, the old woman and the sweet dirt. Sky looked like she didn’t know quite what to think, but when Claire pulled the leftover white dirt from her pocket, soft as silk, she wept, and they covered her wound with it too. That was a good day for Claire and Sky.
Five years later, Claire’s scar from that bite mark had healed so that it barely showed, but it hardly mattered anymore. Since that summer day with her cousin, Sky, she had been bitten at least five more times. The first time she limped down to the river, washed it and dug some more of the sweet dirt up for it, but the second time she couldn’t bring herself to go that far. By the third time, she cried for the old woman, but when she appeared in her dream, Claire screamed at her, angry she was there, watching, but not stopping the monstrous happenings. The fourth time she hardly felt the teeth anymore, even though there was a pack. The fifth time, she was offered a half bottle of cheap booze and she chugged it back. The sweet dirt had dulled the ache, but alcohol numbed it completely, at least for a time. One day she cried in the ravenous school and was sent to a nurse, who looked over all her terrible bites and red eyes and pronounced her a crying shame, but sadly typical for the Mountain people’s children. She got in a fight soon after that and was mercifully expelled.
There was always someone with alcohol, and with enough alcohol, she could laugh again, like that summer day with her cousin, Sky. She could stave off the searing pain from the bites that never seemed to heal over, and she could sometimes vent the terrible rage that seemed to have its own life inside of her. One day, she woke up from a three-day binge and saw her own teeth marks on a child’s arm. She couldn’t think of anything. By that point she barely remembered that day by the river. She wanted to say sorry to the little one, but she remembered enough to know that she herself would not have wanted such an encounter, so instead she went looking for a drink. Claire’s life went on after that, but it stopped being much of a story. Sometimes, the best you can say is that things continue on. Over and over again, like an old record with a deep scratch in it. Once in a while, Claire would wake up and think she saw an old woman weeping over her, or watching her from a distance, and once in a while, something so horrific would happen to Claire, or be done by her, that the world would seem to stop, prepared to change the direction of the story, but then the pain would well up, and her old familiar habits would bear down.
Sky remembered that day in the summer, when she was eleven years old, reading a comic. She would think about the story of the old woman and the sweet dirt. Sometimes she would look at the spot on her leg where they had put the sweet dirt, and marvel at how smooth the skin was — almost as if the bite left no mark at all. Other times she would get annoyed at her cousin when she would come over, always trying to borrow money off her, asking her to help her out of this or that situation, asking so much she felt surely she had paid back all the benefits from the sweet dirt years ago. But still, she would feel the skin over the scar and help her out. One time, she tried to ask her about the old woman, but Claire was snarly from needing a drink and sneered at her. If you want her you can have her, watching over us, doing nothing.
Sky felt bad, and a little embarrassed, but that night she dreamed of the old woman for the first time. She was exactly as Claire had described her, all those years ago, but maybe a little older than she had imagined. The old woman looked happy to see her. With a twinkle in her eye, she told Sky: now don’t go thinking you can just foist me off on each other. I’m both of your grandmothers. But maybe Claire’s right, I should start
doing a little more for you girls, but she’s in no shape to hear any more. A tear trickled down her face. In no shape to help anyone any more. But she helped you, didn’t she? That was good, that’s what we’re supposed to do. Your niece Anna, the old woman went on, she got bit by Claire, when Claire got taken over by the sickness last year. Maybe you can go bring her some of the sweet dirt – it’s still where it’s always been. And in the dream, the old woman took Sky’s hand and took her to the river, showed her the spot where Claire had dug in the bank so many years ago, showed her the soft white dirt inside the brown bank.
The next day, Sky called in sick to work and walked all the way to the river. She recognized the spot from her dream and began to dig. Soon she had filled ajar with the soft white dirt, and once it was full, she walked home with it. There was a lot of sweet dirt in the jar, and she remembered it took so little of it to soothe her own damaged skin so long ago. There was a lot she could do with ajar full of sweet dirt, she reflected. Then again, there were a lot of people in the community who were hurting. She wasn’t sure, once she thought of them all, if even the whole jar would be enough. The other thing was that Claire had the dream, used the sweet dirt, but kept getting bitten, so it alone couldn’t be enough. They would have to be like the ravenous people and mine the whole riverbank, and once it was all gone, it would be all gone.
She decided she would share the story and some of the sweet dirt with her young niece, Anna, like the old woman suggested, but other than that, she would put it away and think about what to do with it. That’s what she did. That very night Anna came visiting and Sky could see the old woman was right. Her eyes had that frightened, ashamed look, somewhere between the look of a prisoner and a scared rabbit, and she was holding her
left arm funny, wearing three shirts instead of one, trying to hide what had happened, trying to protect herself from it happening again. Sky was going to tell her the story, but one look at her face and she knew she had to get the kid laughing a bit first, feed her some supper, remind her about all the good and warm things in life. That’s what she did, and after their bellies were full and Anna was giggling from all the funniest stories Sky could remember, Sky told her about the old woman, Claire, and the sweet dirt. Anna was really quiet. Claire gave it to you, she said softly. I don’t know if it would work on me, I don’t know if I want something from her. And that scared rabbit/prisoner look came back in her eyes all of sudden. Sky could have kicked herself for mentioning Claire, but then, she thought carefully, she was telling Anna the truth. That’s where they were now, all together, where someone could bring such healing and such pain in the same lifetime.
Finally she spoke, I know what Claire did to you, and it wasn’t right. She’s my cousin, and she gave me quite the gift when I was about your age. Plus, we used to laugh our heads off together. And the stuff she’s been through, I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I guess the thing with pain is, when we pass it on, it multiplies itself. That’s what she’s done, letting herself be taken over by the sickness, doing to you what was done to her. It wasn’t your fault. It was hers. And, Sky added, I guess I see why it doesn’t make sense that something that harmful and something healing could ever come to you through the same source. Anna didn’t say anything, just looked at Sky. If you ever want some, Sky said, it’s right here on my shelf. It’s not from Claire you know, she was just the one who got told about it. If it’s from anyone, it’s from the river; it’s from our grandmother. Anna didn’t say anything, just looked at Sky.
Sky couldn’t tell you if Anna ever took some of the sweet dirt or not. She came
and visited Sky a lot, all through her teenage years, even when most of her friends were too busy experimenting with oblivion and other arts. Sometimes she would bring a friend with her and sometimes she came alone. She even babysat for Sky once in a while. Sky fed her and made her laugh and told her stories about people and places they both knew. Sky’s own children grew bright and strong, and Anna seemed to be growing stronger and brighter every year too. A strength seemed to grow in Sky as they grew, to stand up for them when she had to. She did so many times. Through the years there were days when Sky was so tired she would cry, and days she was so sad she just wanted to sleep forever. But she kept doing what she did every day for her kids, for Anna, for the generations ahead of them all. Sometimes Sky would dream of their grandmother, smiling, walking beside her by the river, saying, I feel the brightness coming back to us now. Sometimes, between monsters walking and the ravenous people’s persistent battering, Sky couldn’t see past the darkness in the daytime, but in those dreams, she could feel the brightness too…