“Nothing but the world is real and true,” Grandfather began. His voice was soft, whispery and wise. His eyes were as black as the darkness beneath the good ground. “Everything that does not belong to the world is false and untrue,” he continued. “It is the stuff of spirits.”
“It is a lie,” Raven continued, knowing the lesson by heart. “Spirit stuff only looks like green grass and white sand.”
Grandfather smiled at the boy. “Who rules in the spirit realm?”
“The demons rule it,” Raven answered.
Then the old man waved his good hand, signifying each of the four winds. “And what do we know about the demons?”
“They should be feared,” Raven replied.
Grandfather nodded and said nothing, a crooked smile revealing the last of his yellowed teeth.
The boy looked at the sky and across the darkened land. Quietly, he mentioned, “The spirit realm must be very large.”
“It is large. Yes.”
“And the world is small,” Raven added.
“Oh, no,” said Grandfather. “The world is plenty huge. It feeds our bellies and our senses, does it not? If a small boy wanders away from home, won’t he lose his way in the world?” Then the old man laughed, adding, “The same as you swallow a grasshopper, the world can swallow you. If you wander off, you will get lost and die without a proper burial, and your miserable soul will never return to the earth.”
Even smiling, Grandfather was a scary presence.
“As long as you are a boy,” he continued, “you must remain home. You may not go farther than the river or the sky.”
“Yes, Grandfather. I know what is allowed.”
Their home was inside a great hill that stood beside the river. All the world’s water flowed past their feet. The channel was too wide to leap across, and where the river cut against the hill, it swirled, making a deep, dangerous hole. Even the strongest man respected the water’s power.
Raven liked to follow one of the narrow trails down to the river’s lip, and there he would practice hiding as he watched the chill water slide past. Tangles of dead junipers let him vanish. Like any boy in his seventh year, he knew how to remain perfectly still, breathing in secret, blinking only when the pain in his eyes was unbearable. He knew how to watch the world with all of his senses. The sun would fall, pulling the night across the sky, and after a little while, Raven’s brother and uncle and the other men would slip down the trails. They moved downstream, crossing where the river was straight and shallow. What noise they made was hidden by the water sounds. What footprints they made were washed away in moments. Like graceful threads of darkness, the hunters climbed up the far bank, and then Raven’s brother, or maybe his uncle, would look back at him. The boy could hide in many places, but they always knew where he was. Raven didn’t fool them, and they never pretended to be fooled, and for at least one more night, he was still very much the child.
Afterward, when he couldn’t see them anymore, Raven would put away his sadness and climb to the sky. The world had no higher place. Just past the windy crest, limbless dead trees stood in a perfect line stretching from dawn to dusk. Metal ropes, thin and bright, were strung between the trees. This was the end of the world; everything beyond only pretended to be real. Only a grown man could slip beneath the lowest rope. Only a brave man properly trained and purified could hope to survive that magical realm. Demons were demons, dangerous by any measure; but because they were demons, they also had treasures worth stealing. Two or three times every year, Raven’s uncle—the bravest, holiest man in the world—journeyed alone into the spirit realm. He would be gone for days and days, returning home with a heavy pack jammed full of gifts. Then afterward, Uncle would keep to himself, pretending to be deaf while staring hard at nothing, moving his lips, talking to the demons that were plainly haunting his mind.
“Why is the world shaped as it is, Grandfather?”
“Because it is the world, Raven.”
The boy and old man were sitting on the hilltop, inside a little bowl of packed sand. Raven watched the river move in the moonlight and listened to the constant chittering of insects. A wind was blowing straight from summer. The two of them wore demon clothes decorated with tufts of grass and smudges made with blackened coals. Neither moved, and neither spoke louder than a whisper.
“Does the world need a reason to have its shape?”
Raven hesitated, and then he said, “Yes, Grandfather.”
The old man had a wrinkled face and long hair that had turned white years before Raven was born. When Grandfather was young, a demon had shattered his arm and left it crippled. His old legs were losing their strength. But he was wise. He had experience and a practical nature, and his answers were shaped to serve a purpose. He looked at the boy, and then he sighed and looked back over his shoulder, staring out into the spirit realm. “You are right. All things beg for a shape.”
The boy nodded and smiled.
“And the world just happens to have its own shape. Is that too difficult to accept?”
“No, Grandfather.” Raven used a finger, drawing in the sandy earth. He made a line and another line, marking the borders with winter and summer, and then he drew a curling line between them. He drew the river that he could see from above, and he added what he knew from stories. Each bend of the river had its name. Every waterfall and every rapid were famous. Grown trees had histories worth knowing by heart. Raven was barely in his seventh year, but he knew the world from the stories that were told in the cool dampness of the underground.
Grandfather watched him, and after a long moment, he took his good hand and finished the drawing. Two more straight lines marked dawn and dusk, cutting across the ends of the river.
He said, “This is the world.”
“I know, Grandfather.”
“You can never doubt its shape.”
But instead of dropping the subject, the old man asked, “What would be a better shape? If you were to choose.”
Raven shrugged, admitting, “I do not know.”
“Think about it. Think hard.”
They sat in the darkness, neither speaking. Upriver, the short-hairs were mooing about nothing. One of the demon machines blinked and rumbled as it crossed the sky. Then a buck deer came out of the spirit realm, stopping before the metal ropes to sniff at the wind. When the deer felt safe, it leaped, an easy strength carrying it over the highest rope, black hooves landing in the grass inside the world. Then Raven moved, and the deer spooked, bounding off into the trees.
But Grandfather did not reprimand him. Instead, he watched the boy draw an enormous circle around the square world. Where they were sitting was the circle’s center. Why that shape seemed right, Raven didn’t know. But it felt right, and he said so.
Grandfather nodded, and after a moment, he said, “Yes.”
He said, “This is the shape of the spirit realm,” and he threw his good arm over his grandson. “It is a sign, I think. You knowing this already.”
“Is it a good sign?” asked the boy.
“Unless it brings evil,” Grandfather allowed. “Truthfully, it is too early even to guess about such things.”
Demons looked much like people. They walked on two legs and spoke like real men and women, and they wore clothes and carried all manner of tools. But their walk was a noisy, graceless shamble, and their words came out too fast, twisted around a strange, inhuman tongue. Their clothes were made from stuff not found in the world, and their tools were magical things that could only come from the spirit realm.
A few demons had names.
There was Yellow Hair and Cold Stone; but most familiar to Raven was a large, round-faced creature named Blue Clad. Blue Clad was named for his blue trousers and various blue coats. He usually came from dawn, riding inside a noisy metal wagon that everyone knew by sound and sight. He usually kept his wagon on the open grass and the smaller hills. Sometimes he cut across what was real, traveling to some other part of the spirit realm. But on other days, Blue Clad brought Yellow Hair and Cold Stone. Working together, the three demons would lead a herd of short-hairs to where the world’s sweet grass waited, or they would fix the metal ropes around the world, or they would take away their fat animals, leaving the grass to grow tall again.
Most demons didn’t require names. They usually came in summer, riding down the river inside metal bowls. The bowls were long and narrow, gliding easily across the water. A person could hear them from three bends downriver. They were noisy creatures, spanking the water with flat pieces of wood, kicking at the bright metal, talking endlessly and loudly while laughing with their coarse voices, seeing nothing of the beautiful world sliding past their bright, blinded eyes.
Late one day, four demons appeared on the river.
It was that next summer. Raven was in his eighth year, almost a man. When Uncle brought word of intruders, the boy set to work with the adults, brushing away footprints and picking up the occasional bit of trash. Then together, the people moved underground. Doors were dragged into place and lowered and sealed. The only light fell through the air holes, and then one of the old demon torches was lit, and people sat in its tired light and waited.
Only Uncle and Grandfather were outside. When the demons had passed, they would give the signal by pounding their feet.
A long while passed. Then when the pounding came, it was the wrong signal. Twice and then twice again, someone struck the main door. Raven’s mother helped pull the door open. The darkness outside was bright compared to the darkness underground. Grandfather crawled through, his narrow face smiling but his voice sad and worried. “They are not leaving,” he admitted. “The demons made camp on the far bank.”
Raven wanted to climb outside and look. But he didn’t move or breathe, watching the old man shuffle down the narrow passageway. Straightening his back, Grandfather said, “The demons are using our river and our firewood. Your uncle had to leave for a time. I want you to go down there in place of him. Go down and steal a treasure or two. Would you do that for me?”
The old man was speaking to Raven’s brother. Snow-On-Snow was in his twelfth year, which made him a full man. He was taller than his brother, but not by much, and he was famous for his endless caution.
“Use your night clothes,” Grandfather suggested. “And I have a charm that will help you.”
“Thank you, Grandfather.”
Raven said nothing, but a sound leaked from his lips.
Grandfather turned. He wasn’t even pretending to smile. In the weak light of the demon lamp, he looked angry. But with his calmest voice, he said, “I was going to send you with your brother. But if you can’t control your tongue here, how can we trust you down there?”
“You can trust me, Grandfather.” Raven dipped his head, and in every way possible, he made no sound.
A leathery hand touched him on the shoulder.
“Night clothes,” Grandfather said to him. “And since you are not ready for this duty, I will give you a very powerful charm.”
But Raven was ready. He slipped back into the little chamber where he kept his few possessions, and in the blackness, by feel alone, he found the black demon clothes and black mask that would cover him completely. They were old clothes that still smelled of their long-ago owners. That enhanced their power. When Raven was dressed, he came into the main tunnel. Everyone was waiting for him. Snow-On-Snow was speaking to the charm around his neck, begging for its help. Grandfather handed Raven an owl foot with owl feathers tied to the bone, the wing of a bat wrapped around everything. Raven pretended to speak to the charm, but only because the others were watching. Then he tucked it inside his black shirt and looked at the staring faces.
“Take treasures,” said Grandfather. “But not too much.”
“We will and we won’t,” Snow-On-Snow promised.
The brothers climbed outside, bare feet making no sound on the hard summer earth. The door was sealed behind them. Suddenly there was nobody in the world but them. The demons were chattering and laughing. Raven saw the flickering fire between the trees. The fire was enormous, throwing shadows in all directions. It was summer, but a cool wind was blowing from the winter. Raven smelled smoke and something else. What was that smell? He nearly asked, but then his brother put his mouth to Raven’s ear. “We wait until they sleep,” he whispered.
“Wait where?” Raven asked.
But they were still high above the river. Raven shook his head, whispering, “We can move closer. I know where.”
Snow-On-Snow thought he meant those tangles of old junipers.
“But I have a better place to hide,” said Raven. “All summer, whenever you go hunting, you and Uncle and the rest of the men walk past me.”
“We do not.”
“And you never notice me,” Raven promised.
“Where is that?” his brother asked.
“On the far shore,” Raven confessed.
“You’re too young to cross the river,” Snow-On-Snow reminded him. But he was impressed, and a little curious, too. “All right then. Show me where you mean.”
An old ash tree named Two-Hawk-Perch collapsed last winter, and a feast of nettles had grown up around its shattered body. It made a wonderful hiding place. The brothers crept inside the ring of nettles, ignoring the itching of their bare hands, confident that no demon would dare look here. The bottomland was thick with ash trees and cottonwoods. The sandy ground beneath the trees had been stripped of its grass by the hungry short-hairs. Four demons stood with their backs to the night, laughing and talking in their harsh, quick language. In a breath, Raven heard more demon-talk than ever before in his life. And he recognized some of it. “Machine,” he heard. And “Stupid.” And one demon said, “Fuck,” both that word and its angry tone very familiar.
The demons had a bottle. Passing it from one hand to the next, each took a long sip and held it in his mouth, and after the last demon had his fill, they spat out what looked like water. Except this water caused the fire to blossom and roar, singeing the branches high in the surrounding trees.
Demons liked poisons. They drank them and ate them, and that was one reason that they were demons.
Raven wondered how it would taste, having that false water in your mouth?
A demon turned abruptly, shuffling toward their hiding place. He was small and clumsy. With both hands, he opened his pants, and he stopped at the edge of the nettles, taking a long, slow pee. His prick was small and wrong-looking. His face had a wild hairiness, and his eyes were stupid and slow. But nothing about the demon was genuinely unpleasant. That was what Raven was thinking, watching the creature pee and shake its prick and laugh in a joyous, honest way.
The bottle was emptied, and another bottle was opened and drained. Then the four demons crawled inside a pair of shelters, and in another breath or two, the night was filled with the sounds of deep, wet snoring.
The brothers crept forward.
“Demons sleep hard,” Uncle liked to say. “They sleep so hard, you could steal their arms, and they wouldn’t even feel your knife.”
Remembering the phrase, Raven laughed.
“Quiet,” Snow-On-Snow warned.
The Moon had fallen behind the hills. The brothers picked their way through slick bags and bulging packs. A metal box was set near the dying fire, held shut with a metal clamp. Snow-On-Snow tried to open the box, then gave up. Seeing the opportunity to better his brother, Raven stared at the clamp until he saw it perfectly, and he quietly twisted it, releasing the lid, a breath of damp cold air leaking out.
Inside the box was a marvel. Ice. The ice was in pieces, floating in icy water, and with it were metal bottles and glass bottles and a great plastic tube filled with what looked like meat.
Meat was a treasure worth stealing.
Raven claimed the tube and sucked on chunks of ice. Snow-On-Snow went down by the water, looking at the long metal bowls. Raven eased up alongside the demons’ shelters. One shelter was yellow, the other orange. He touched the taut fabric and ropes, and he picked up a soggy boot and turned it over. Something small and yellow tried to fall free. He caught it and held it up to the firelight. A narrow rope clung to the treasure, and there was a curl of metal at the rope’s far end. A soft button waited beneath his thumb. He touched the button, and sounds began to leak from the curled metal. Raven heard voices. Putting the curled metal to his ear, he made the voices become louder. For an instant, he nearly panicked. But Snow-On-Snow heard nothing. He was bending over another pack, tugging at a little zipper. Did anyone notice him? Grandfather might be watching, but from a distance. Raven decided that he didn’t care. He pressed the button again, and the voices stopped. Then he moved to a brush pile, fitting his dangerous treasure beneath a slab of rotted wood.
Snow-On-Snow noticed Raven and began walking toward him, wearing a curious face; but then a demon cried out, and the orange shelter twisted as legs and arms flailed wildly.
The brothers ran back to their hiding place, each carrying a single treasure. Raven had the meat, and Snow-On-Snow had a pair of odd moccasins. The young men had barely hidden when the screaming demon crawled into the open, followed by his shelter mate. Then a third demon looked out of the other shelter, asking a question, and the scared demon answered him.
Raven heard another word that he recognized.
“Dream,” he heard.
The first two demons threw wood on the fire. Soon the bottomland was lit up like day. The dreaming demon was the same creature that had pissed in front of them. He sat on the metal box, wearing almost nothing. His face was sad and bothered. Whatever the dream, it had been terrible. The other demon said soft words and looked at his friend and said more words. That was what they were doing when Blue Clad came out of the darkness.
He rode up inside his metal wagon. The demons never noticed him, hearing nothing but the crackling sputter of their own fire. A pair of twin lights ignited, slicing across the campsite. The two demons climbed to their feet. Wagon doors swung open. A familiar voice, rough and loud, shouted at the invaders. Then came the sharp clean sound of metal against metal, and a second voice, younger and a little scared, called out, “Hands up! Do it!”
Yellow Hair was with his father. He was a small demon, like his mother. His hands held a shotgun. Blue Clad pointed a rifle at the sky. He looked huge and furious, his brown skin shiny with sweat, his blue trousers dirty at the knees, thick arms shaking and his breath coming hard until he found his voice.
He said “Who,” followed by more words.
The nameless demons answered, their voices sloppy and quick. Then the other demons crawled from their shelter, looking angry and confused.
Blue Clad said, “Shut up!”
Then he spat out more words.
The demons glanced at each other, their mouths hanging open.
“Now!” Yellow Hair shouted, drawing a circle with the barrel of his shotgun.
The invaders grabbed their packs. They turned over their long bowls and threw in their packs. But when they came back for the icebox, Blue Clad said, “No.” Then he said something else. And the half-dressed demons left it and the shelters on the ground. They pushed the long bowls out into the river and climbed in, slashing at the water with those flat pieces of wood. It would remain night for a long while. The Moon was down, and there were rapids after the next bend. But the demons were terrified and brave because of it, pushing at the water under them, outracing the current as it slipped across the dirty white sandbars.
Blue Clad and his son walked slowly through the campsite. Yellow Hair saw something and pointed, and his father looked at the ground, nodding and offering a few words. And then together, they looked back across the open ground, watching the shadows, watching hard for something.
Raven had walked on that ground.
They must have noticed one of his little footprints, and now they would find him and his brother. Raven knew it. Then they would find Mother and Grandfather, and because they were demons, they would shoot them dead—all because of the carelessness of one boy.
Raven wished that he were dead.
But then Blue Clad used his boots, smoothing the sandy ground, and he climbed into his wagon with little Yellow Hair beside him, and they rode away together, the wagon’s bright lights showing the way down the long, long length of the world.
The People stood on the riverbank. Uncle returned from his unmentioned errand, and now there were seventeen faces. Snow-On-Snow happily described their adventures, while Raven took his share of the salted red meat, sitting near the fire, slicing off pieces with an old demon knife and eating them slowly, tasting none of the salt or sweet fat.
Grandfather came over and looked at him. Then he looked back at the others, thinking to himself.
Raven said nothing.
The old man sat on the ground before him. “The world was once a better place,” he began. “The People were abundant and happy, and if they were not perfect, at least they were on the path to an ideal life. But then the demons came. Like a flood, they came. They drowned our lands and killed the buffalo and made us live on evil ground where the children and old ones died away. That is why-“
“I know that story, Grandfather.”
Raven had never interrupted before, but the rudeness went unmentioned. Instead, Grandfather spoke about people long dead. “My grandfather’s grandfather was a strong medicine man. He had a vision. In his vision, he was shown a valley free of demons. And it would remain pure, if good people would live there. So he and a few believers slipped away, and they became us, and we found grass and fresh water and a few elk and buffalo still hiding in these draws. We learned to hide by day—”
“And hunt by night,” Raven interrupted. “Yes, I know all that.”
Grandfather looked at him. “What do you know, little boy?”
“I am not a little boy,” said Raven.
“What are you?” asked Grandfather.
Raven closed his eyes, telling the old man, “Blue Clad knows about us. Somehow he knows that we are here.”
For an instant, it felt as if anything might happen. But then Grandfather broke into a low laugh, balancing his share of the stolen meat on his trouser leg, using his good hand to break off slivers that he could swallow whole. “Of course he knows about us,” Grandfather admitted. “He knows and his father knew before him, and his grandfather before them.”
What was stranger? Was it Grandfather’s confession or the ease in his voice?
“Demons are demons,” the old man added. “But if you can charm a few of them, then you’ll have powerful allies.”
The sun was trying to rise. Raven watched the women and children picking through the demons’ lost belongings. Uncle was standing with the other grown men, sucking at the ice and smiling, one hand playing with his long black hair. Quietly, Raven said, “I know who brought Blue Clad here.”
Grandfather nodded soberly. “I didn’t approve. There was no reason to involve Blue Clad. But your mother’s brother is a grown man, and grown men do what they wish.”
Raven smiled, playing with the idea of being that free.
Then the old man grabbed him by the knee, his good hand squeezing while a hard, certain voice said, “Men can do as they wish. But because they are men, the consequences will do the same to them.”
Raven left the voice-making machine in the woodpile, claiming it only when he was sure that nobody was watching him. Then in secret, he listened to the tiny voices. He heard demons speaking and singing. With the ends of the curled metal stuck in his ears, it was as if they were singing inside his own head. The machine worked best near the sky, which was where he kept it, sneaking away at night to listen for a few delicious moments. A little wheel could be turned, moving him from voice to voice, nothing between but a sputtering sound like fat on a fire. A second wheel made every sound louder or softer. And there was a hard black button that could be moved, causing a new flock of voices and songs to fall out of the increasingly cold night air.
Raven felt half-deaf when he used the machine, and when it was put away, he still heard the buzzing of voices. That was their magic and their danger. To let the buzzing fade, he remained sitting for a time, staring out between the metal ropes, watching the spirit realm with its own grass and rolling hills and the mooing short-hairs. Everything out there looked like the real world, except for the differences. There was no river out there, and no trees. And on the clear nights, in the direction of summer, towers of shimmering white light rose into the air. Each tower marked a demon village. Uncle had explained this to Raven. Those villages were huge and noisy, and even when demons slept, everything was kept brightly lit. Each village had its own peculiar name. Uncle could point to a tower, repeating a senseless name. Then with the next breath, he would say, “I am not suppose to tell you this. Do you understand? You are too young to use what I say.”
“This is our secret.”
Raven smiled agreeably. “Yes. Our secret.”
It was the rare night when Uncle sat with him. The man preferred to be hunting, even in fat times. A strong man with busy hands and legs, he was always moving in one fashion or another. More than anyone, Uncle hated being underground, and he used any excuse to escape. The women gossiped about his moods, and Mother teased him. “Where is your mind walking, brother?” she would ask, laughing but not laughing. “What scares you so badly when you look at the darkness?”
Uncle would understand the yellow machine. That was why Raven dropped it into his hands, saying, “I found this.”
“When did you find this?” Uncle asked.
“Not long ago.” It wasn’t a lie. Not really. “This button wakes it. And this wheel makes it louder—”
“I know how the bastard works!”
Raven fell silent.
Uncle listened to the voices. Then he put the machine to sleep again, and he flipped it in his hand and pulled off its back, thick fingers yanking free two silver cylinders.
“Your batteries are old,” Uncle muttered.
“Batteries” was a demon word. Their demon torches used bigger, fatter batteries than these.
“The next time I wander,” said Uncle, “maybe I will bring you some fresh batteries. Would you like that?”
Raven hesitated, and then said, “Yes. Please.”
“I thought so.” Uncle stood and cocked his arm, flinging the machine far out into the spirit realm. Its back and body vanished into the tired autumn grass, and each battery hit the sand with a soft little thump.
“Why did you do that?” Raven whispered.
Uncle looked at him. Then he gazed up at the softly shimmering towers of light, shaking his head while asking, “Really, what did you think I would do? When you showed that thing to me, what did you think?”
Winter was early and angry. Grandfather claimed to have lived through worse, but nobody else had seen such cold. A hard rain turned to ice, and a two-day snow fell afterward, the winds piling the snow into drifts as big as hills. The precious grass was trapped beneath the winter. Without a thaw, the deer and antelope would starve before spring. There was whispered talk of famine. There were meetings in the main room. Raven sat with the adults, listening to every word. Counts were made of their food. People volunteered to eat less and less often. Uncle wanted to butcher several of the short-hairs, but Mother didn’t approve. “We’ve killed three since spring,” she reminded everyone. “Blue Clad won’t like losing a fourth.”
There were strict, ancient rules about the short-hairs.
“We will have to staunch Blue Clad’s anger,” Uncle allowed. “I will go out and talk to the wind and see what a short-hair is worth.”
Raven knew what he meant. But when the children asked where Uncle was going, he repeated the lie. “Shadow-Below is chatting with the wind,” he said, using a stern, believable voice.
Uncle returned and shook his head. “Blue Clad demands much. Very much.” Then he said a number.
Raven didn’t understand the number.
Grandfather reached into his medicine bag, removing slips of thin green fabric. “This is not enough,” he admitted. “We need more.”
Uncle went to his chamber to make ready. He had visited the spirit realm many times, but it was never an easy journey. There were cleansing rituals and special demon clothes kept for these times, and Uncle needed to practice speaking demon words until he could say them easily.
“Where will you go?” Raven asked, watching Uncle make ready.
Uncle didn’t answer. He was staring at the earthen wall, his face long and his eyes empty. Then he suddenly looked at his nephew, explaining, “I will take a long walk.”
Uncle looked away. “I have work, Raven. Leave me.”
Wounded, the young man returned to the main room. He sat apart from the others, watching the flickering flames of the tallow candles. Then Uncle appeared, and everyone called him, “Samuel.” That was his demon name. “Good luck to you, Samuel,” said Grandfather, watching as his son kicked loose the tree limbs holding the door in place.
Uncle barely looked back. He climbed out into the roaring cold of the night, and the door was shut again, and Raven imagined his hero walking across the empty snow, aiming for one of those great towers of light.
Uncle would be gone for ten or twelve days.
“We have friends among the demons,” Grandfather explained to Raven, speaking man-to-man. “They used to belong to The People. They will give us whatever we need.”
“What do we need?” Raven asked.
“This,” said the old man. He brought out those little green hides. “These are charms. Powerful demon charms.”
Every charm wore a face. The top face looked wise and kind; it was hard to think of this face as belonging to an enemy.
“What are you thinking, Raven?”
“Nothing.” But that was a lie. He was imagining himself marching across the spirit realm, covering great stretches of dangerous and strange country. In his mind, he was walking beside Uncle, holding the pace despite deep snow and the bitter, killing winds.
Grandfather heard the lie in his voice.
Quietly and firmly, he said, “Ask your uncle about his adventures. When it is just the two of you, ask for a story.”
“May I, Grandfather?”
“This once,” said the old man. “Just this once.”
But Uncle didn’t return. Ten days became twenty days. Winter still lay over everything, the true world white and dangerous. Raven and the older men hunted on the mildest nights, but game was scarce and wary, and without Uncle’s skills, it was difficult to kill enough to feed the only sixteen People left in the world.
After thirty days, Grandfather made a decision. He put on old demon clothes that rode loose on his withered frame. A piece of slick brown cloth was tied like a noose around his neck. Then he put a heavy demon coat over those clothes and stuffed some of the green charms into a pocket, and with a grave voice, he said, “Nothing is wrong. I am sure of it.”
Mother and the other women wept as the old man staggered off into the darkness. And the last of the men held the women, wiping at their own wet eyes.
Another ten days passed.
After five more days of waiting, just as hope was flickering out, a foot pounded weakly on the main door. Twice and then twice again, the signal was given. Then Grandfather fell inside, half-frozen and his fingers burned by the cold. He was stripped and wrapped in deer fur, and everyone sat close to him, sharing heat. Weaker men would have died. Grandfather nearly died, but in the end, he lost only a pair of toes.
“Did you find him?” asked Mother. “Did you find my brother? Is he coming home soon?”
Grandfather was alive, but he was different. His mouth didn’t pretend to smile, and his old eyes held a coldness worse than any winter wind. Quietly and angrily, he said, “Samuel is lost.”
That was his only answer.
“Samuel is lost,” he repeated.
Nobody asked what he meant. The adults seemed to know, and Raven sensed it from their miserable silence. His uncle had gone amongst the demons, and his soul had been stolen away.
Rolled up inside Grandfather’s coat pocket was a great handful of green charms. He never mentioned them, but as soon as he was strong enough, he said, “Come with me, Raven. I need your help.”
It was a clear, cold night. Just the two of them went to the river, crossing where the ice lay on the sandbars. Then they walked with the river, keeping to where the ground was blown clean of snow, eventually reaching the end of the world. Raven had never been this far. He saw dead trees standing in the hard ground, and the metal ropes strung between them, and beyond, he saw lights. One light was hung on a tall limbless tree, and more lights glowed inside a heavy wooden shelter. The shelter stood in a grove of old trees just inside the spirit realm. Grandfather knelt in front of the metal ropes and began pulling objects from his medicine sack. Raven stepped up next to him, and he put out his hand, letting his fingers slip into a realm that was neither real nor true.
“Stop that,” Grandfather whispered.
Raven stepped back. Grandfather had tied the green charms together, and on the snow around them stood little figurines made from twigs and twine. There were four short-hairs, each with a dab of blood on its neck. And there were tiny, tiny people with sad faces. Grandfather chanted to the spirits and to Blue Clad, and when he was done with his magic, he pulled a bright sunset-colored rag from his pocket, tying it to the highest of the metal ropes.
Raven understood most of the magic, but not the rag.
“Demons are half-blind,” the old man explained. “You can weave your best spell, but if he ignores your work, nothing will change.”
A few days later, the hunters found a toboggan stacked high with demon clothes and knives, torches and bright new batteries, plus other treasures. “Blue Clad has been charmed,” Grandfather announced. Finally, he was smiling again. “Now go find us four fat short-hairs.”
Raven happily joined the men, helping to kill and butcher the first short-hair. Sitting with the children, he ate bellies full of sweet meat and the rich liver and the long, long guts. Then three more short-hairs were killed, everyone happy and fat. And two moons later, when the spring thaw found them, Raven had grown a full hand taller-much more of a man now, if still many years away from his full height and a man’s important voice.
The brothers were hunting between Widow Falls and the Last Rapids. It was late spring, warm and dry. Snow-On-Snow felt a taste for night rats, and Raven didn’t. He shook his head. “I want a deer,” he said. Then for emphasis, he threw his spear into the trunk of a nearby cottonwood.
His older brother laughed, saying, “Go on. Waste your night.”
“I will. Yes.” Raven pulled the spear free and waited, and when Snow-On-Snow had vanished, he crept down past the Last Rapids. He was carrying his spear and a pair of demon eyes. The eyes were metal and glass, a leather strap holding them around his neck. Uncle had left the eyes behind. Snow-On-Snow had teased Raven, claiming that he couldn’t see anything in the dark. But for what Raven wanted, they would work just fine.
The river flattened and swirled, making a deep hole before it left the world. An old cottonwood stood on the bank just inside the world. Raven put down his spear and grabbed the lumpy bark with his fingers and toes, scrambling up a little ways and falling back to Earth with a soft grunt. Then he picked himself up and climbed again, reaching the first fat branch. For a little while, he gasped and held tight. Then he put the demon eyes to his own eyes, working with the wheel that brought the distant world into focus.
The demons’ shelter was brightly lit, as always. There was an opening that wasn’t an opening—a great sheet of glass letting the light escape. Raven peered inside the chamber. Blue Clad was sitting. Stone Face was sitting beside him. Yellow Hair strolled into the chamber twice, saying a few words before vanishing again. His parents were busy watching a box with its own sheet of glass and its own bright light leaking free. Inside that box, Raven saw swirling colors and demon faces and strange demon bodies, and endless machines moved rapidly across scenes that made absolutely no sense to him.
Raven couldn’t stop watching. Nothing made sense; everything was strange and wonderful. And then Blue Clad stood up and touched the box, and the box went dark and dead.
The two demons vanished into another chamber.
Raven told himself to stop. He made himself put the demon eyes back around his neck, and he stared down at the black swirling water. This part scared him. Climbing down always took too long, which was why he jumped. But the water wasn’t deep everywhere, and in the moonless dark, he had to aim by memory.
Raven took a breath and a long step, bare feet leading the way. The water was cold and hard, and just beneath the surface was a mossy log that had floated downstream in the last few days. There was no warning. He hit the wood with both feet, legs crumbling under him, and then he woke again, finding himself deep under the coldest, blackest water.
Raven kicked, and kicked.
He screamed and swallowed water and burst to the surface, coughing badly. Then the current threw him up on the far shore, saving him. He climbed out on shaky legs, pulled off the eyes and finally managed to breathe. Then he saw where he was, and in a panic, he crawled back under the metal ropes, escaping the spirit realm before anything awful came roaring up out of the darkness.
For a long while, Raven stood on the edge of the world.
When he was sure nobody was watching, he crawled under the ropes and searched the bank, finding the demon eyes where he had dropped them. Then he stood on that sandy bank, turning over a slab of driftwood, studying the bugs living under it, and he ate them, one at a time and tasting them for what they were.
“Silence is a good thing,” Grandfather observed, climbing the last little ways to the top of the hill. “And silence is very rare to find in such a young man.”
Raven felt the first warmth of the compliment. A smile began to build, but then he looked up at the old man, his half-born smile collapsing into an embarrassed grimace.
Grandfather gave a little laugh, sitting beside him. “We must talk,” he said. “Man to man.”
Raven had been found out. Maybe Snow-On-Snow saw him standing outside the world, or maybe Grandfather had seen his thoughts. Whatever the reason, the secret was lost, and he was glad about it. Now a few hard words would be offered, and Raven would pretend not to cry, absorbing his punishment like a good boy, Grandfather putting him back on the path to manhood.
Except the old man didn’t know. He just looked at Raven, and he said, “Born-Twice.”
Born-Twice was a person. In her fifth year, she was Raven’s second cousin, her bloodline divided from his by a goodly distance.
“Do you like her?” Grandfather asked.
Raven said, “Yes,” while thinking, “No.”
Grandfather only noticed the “Yes” answer. Nodding and smiling, he told him, “She likes you, I think.”
Raven said nothing.
“Again, silence.” Grandfather laughed.
A wind blew across the spirit realm, rippling the grass until its warm breath struck Raven in the face.
“It is too soon for you,” the old man offered. “But not for others. Your brother, in another year or two, and maybe your mother again.”
“She is young enough still. And pretty enough, too.” Grandfather shook him with his good arm, saying, “This is something worth considering.”
Raven tried to shrink away and vanish.
“Or I could take a man with me. Travel out into the spirit realm with someone, and I will teach him the magic spells and the right words, and we will fool all of the demons we meet.”
“Fool them?” Raven echoed.
“Long enough to steal away one of their babies.” That withered face couldn’t have smiled any harder, black eyes sparkling in the moonlight. “This is something we do from time to time. When we need fresh blood, we take a baby demon and purify it with a special ceremony.”
Raven closed his eyes.
“Who was my father?” he blurted.
The clinging arm dropped away, and Grandfather stared at him, using his own silence now.
With a tight, hard voice, Raven said, “I want to know my father.”
“Ask something else,” Grandfather suggested.
“But this is what I want to know.”
“And I won’t tell you,” the old man replied. Then with a patient, slow voice, he said, “Ask anything else. This one time, I will tell you whatever you want to know.”
Raven said nothing.
Grandfather looked at the sky. “Did you know? Demons once walked across the moon.”
“I don’t care,” Raven lied.
“I guess you do not,” Grandfather muttered, shaking his head slowly. “I see that I was wrong.”
There was a soft thump, and Raven looked up. Two demons sat inside a long metal bowl, floating around Bull’s Bend. Raven was standing in the open, knee-deep in water, holding an enormous turtle by its tail. The turtle hissed at him. Raven held tight. If he dropped the animal or ran, he would splash and be seen. But if he stood where he was, even the blind demons would notice him.
Slowly, slowly, he walked up to the bank and hunkered down beside some silvery willows, letting his face drop. Like men, demons saw faces before anything. Through the tops of his eyes, he watched them drift past. Then a second metal bowl rounded the bend, another pair of demons coming close. One of the demons coughed. Otherwise they made no sound, sitting up straight, their eyes big enough to be worn by owls.
When the demons were passed, Raven stepped back into the shadows and cut off the turtle’s head, and he buried the biting head in the wet sand, and he ran home, carrying the turtle in one hand, then the other, climbing the bluffs and cutting across the prairie, skipping the next two bends in the river.
Raven gave the first warning, and he helped the women and children hide. Then with the men, he stayed outside. “It is only midday,” Grandfather pointed out. “They will float past, and it will still be midday.”
But the demons pulled up against the far shore, dragging their bowls into the trees. Silently, the men watched as two shelters were set up and wood was stacked high, making ready for a fire. Raven went underground and came back with Uncle’s demon eyes. Another man took the eyes. Raven waited. A second man used them. Finally Raven got them and stared at the demons, and after a long moment, he said, “They are the same. The ones who came last year.”
Snow-On-Snow glared at him. “You can’t know that.”
Raven said nothing.
“I believe you,” said Grandfather.
Raven let himself smile, just a little.
The men sat watching, whispering among themselves, and then they were quiet for a long while. Midday turned to dusk. The demons sat around the woodpile, talking quietly. “I do not like this,” said Grandfather. “They want something, I think.” He went underground, returning with a medicine sack. Inside it was the bright rag and a special charm. The charm was carved from ash wood, and it looked like a long bowl meant to ride on the water, demons sitting inside it. Speaking only to Raven, Grandfather asked, “Do you want to come talk to the wind with me?”
“No,” said Raven.
The old man stared at him.
Snow-On-Snow said, “I’d like to go with you, Grandfather.”
“Good then,” said Grandfather. “Good.”
When the sun dropped, the demons lit their campfire. They fed the blaze until it was enormous, and one of them brought out a long black box that let loose a strange wailing. The men had to laugh at these demons. Weren’t they the strangest, sickest creatures?
Raven was scared, and he didn’t know why.
“I want to eat,” he announced, walking toward home. But he slipped past the main door and down to the river, crossing it on the sandbars. The demons were burning the dead ash tree where he hid last year. Even at a distance, Raven could feel the flickering heat. Kneeling, he watched two of them drag fat branches to the fire. Where were the others? The little demon was missing—the one with bad dreams—and his good friend, too. Were they inside the shelters? With a practiced eye, Raven stared across the open ground. On the far side of the fire stood a giant cottonwood named Forever. Sitting beneath that tree were the missing demons, waiting now, each holding some kind of rifle.
Raven started to rise, and then thought better of it.
He kneeled again, and waited. The wailing songs grew even louder. The great fire hissed and popped, throwing its light up into the clear skies. Then the fire began to collapse and die, and that was when Blue Clad rode up in his wagon and turned on its bright torches and leaped out.
Yellow Hair held the shotgun, like last year. And Blue Clad lifted his rifle high, shouting now, his deep voice swallowed up by the wailing songs.
The demons at the fire stepped forward, smiling grimly.
Blue Clad yelled again.
There were pops, loud and sharp, and his wagon jumped as if kicked. Then the fat wheels collapsed beneath it, and the demons at the fire were stepping forward, shouting angrily at Blue Clad.
Raven quit breathing, melting down into the ground.
Blue Clad set his rifle on the ground, and then he said something to his son. And he repeated himself. And finally, Yellow Hair set his shotgun on the ground, straightening his back now and stepping away.
The hiding demons walked into the firelight.
Raven breathed again, with a tight little gasp.
The four demons were shouting and laughing. They herded Blue Clad and his son over to their fire and made them sit together. The little demon walked up behind Blue Clad. He said a few words and put his rifle against the man’s head, just above the thick neck. And he said something else, turning the rifle and holding the barrel tightly with both hands, driving the butt into the neck.
Blue Clad crumpled.
Yellow Hair started to stand, and he was knocked down again.
Blue Clad called to his son. He spoke to the others. Holding his neck with both hands, he tried to sit up, and then he fell forward and rolled onto his side, growing still now.
The little demon stood over him, watching him.
Everyone was staring at Blue Clad, trying to decide if he was dead. Nobody saw Raven. He slipped through the shadows, moving behind the crippled wagon and looking at the Blue Clad’s rifle left lying on the ground.
Blue Clad moved in pain, and then lay still again.
His son said a few hard words, and one of the unarmed demons picked up a hatchet and stepped toward him, cursing him.
Remembering how Blue Clad had aimed and fired the rifle, Raven grabbed it. He planted the butt against his shoulder and looked down the long, long barrel, curling his top finger around a cold piece of metal. He aimed at the demon with the hatchet. He stepped forward. But nobody wanted to see him, and they were going to beat Yellow Hair next, and Raven stepped forward again, shouting the first demon word that came to mind.
“Fuck,” he said.
Five faces turned toward him.
Raven yanked at the cold metal, but nothing happened. So again, louder this time, he shouted, “Fuck.”
The little demon turned his body.
Raven tugged at curled metal, and again nothing happened. But then as he lifted the barrel, his fingers slipped behind the guard, and the trigger went click, and there was a sharp, enormous explosion.
Everyone fell to the ground, and for a horrible instant, Raven believed that he must have killed everyone. Then Yellow Hair jumped up and ripped the rifle from the little demon’s hands, and the others just lay there, staring at the sight of a feral boy wearing next to nothing, his naked feet set far apart as he clumsily but deliberately aimed that smoking barrel at their owl-eyed faces.
Yellow Hair shouted, and the last rifle was thrown away. Then he turned toward Raven, and with a clear, even voice, he said, “Thank you, brother.”
Using the language of people, he said, “Now get your ass out of here.”
“He called me ‘brother,'” Raven reported.
Grandfather said nothing. He looked as if he might be asleep, his black eyes half-closed and pointed down at the bare sand.
“He spoke our language, Grandfather.”
“Many do,” the old man countered.
“And he called me his brother,” Raven persisted. “But there’s only one way that can be. I have been thinking-“
He pulled his mouth shut.
“Stop thinking,” Grandfather told him.
“How can I?” Raven asked.
Grandfather ignored the question. He opened his eyes and leaned close, whispering, “You did a good, good thing. A wondrous thing.” His breath was wet and sour and very familiar. “You saved Blue Clad and his son, and maybe all of us, too. And our two demons are going to be grateful for a long time, believe me.”
Raven looked toward summer. The night was old but clear, and the distant towers of light stood in a great row before him. He watched the spirit grass bend like real grass beneath a warm wind. He waited, and the wind soon came through the metal ropes and played across his face, and Raven could smell the good grass smells, and he felt tired enough to faint, and he felt nothing but sick of pretending things that weren’t so.
“There are no demons,” he proclaimed.
Grandfather watched him, and waited.
“Blue Clad is a man, and Yellow Hair is another man.” He wanted to whisper, but his voice grew louder with each word. “They are the same as us. And those demons who floated down the river—”
“Raven,” Grandfather interrupted. “Stop this.”
“They aren’t demons, either. They are men, different from us in ways, but not very different. I think.”
“Is that what you think?”
The old man’s voice was hard and scornful.
Raven said, “Yes,” as he stood, walking over to the metal ropes. Then he put a hand on top of a dead tree, and like a buck deer, he leaped over the highest rope, landing in the grass on the other side. “It’s the same world over here,” he announced. “It feels the same, because it is.”
The old man shook his head, tears running.
“Uncle knew,” said Raven, “and that’s why he left us.”
“He left us,” said Grandfather, “because he was weak and foolish. No other reasons are needed.”
Raven shook his head, wanting to hear none of it.
“You aren’t weak or foolish,” Grandfather continued. “But I think you have made a simple, horrible mistake.”
“What is that?”
The old man followed him, crawling beneath the lowest rope and standing up stiffly to face him. “You are right. Between the spirit realm and our world, there is no difference. But that’s because we lost. Our little valley was flooded with the demons’ evil, and now everything belongs to them.”
Raven winced and closed his eyes, thinking hard now.
“We are demons,” Grandfather told him.
“I am not,” Raven growled.
“You are, and I am, too. And that’s why those demons confused you for men.” Grandfather laughed gently, lifting his good arm and setting his open hand on Raven’s shoulder. “The medicine man who brought us here…your ancestor, and mine…knew we wouldn’t withstand the demons’ flood. We were scarce, and we were human, and how could we be anything but weak?”
Raven shook his head, saying nothing.
“Look below,” Grandfather told him. “Imagine our river rising. Imagine those cold black waters covering the valley floor, and then the bluffs, and finally us. You and I would be the last people swallowed by the awful water.”
“I don’t want to think about that,” Raven began.
“But flood waters always fall,” Grandfather continued. “And what is the first ground to rise up into the sun?”
“This is,” Raven realized. “The last ground swallowed.”
Grandfather grinned, saying, “Exactly. Our ancestor wanted us in this place because this place would be the first to emerge. He had a bright, wondrous vision of a great demon who would make himself human again, and make his family human, and then would make the world a good human place, free of madness and pain.”
“He saw this?” Raven gulped.
The hand dropped now. “Yes, he did.”
A strange sweet hope took hold of Raven. Quietly, he asked, “Could I maybe be that special one?”
Grandfather just looked at him, then turned and slipped back under the metal rope, starting to walk home. “Come with me,” he said as he vanished into the shadows. “Come, or you’ll never know if you could be.”
Raven stood motionless for a long while.
He looked at the towers of light, and he looked down at the quiet little river. And then he looked inside himself, finding the answer waiting there.
© 2001 by Robert Reed
First published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction,
edited by Gordon Van Gelder for Spilogale, Inc., December 2001.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
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