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Viaticum

For weeks, the rumors circled into town as if carried by wind. But when the priest stopped coming, the knife-whetter, the cloth-merchant, the rumors stopped, too. The village was calm, and the fjord reflected lovingly back to itself in the cold water of the inlet.

In late summer, though, a woman stumbled into town, a bundle held hard to her chest. She was filthy, her face broken out in lumps. When she collapsed in the mud, only the pigs neared her, snuffling about her skirts with their warm breath. After some time, the kind baker’s wife lifted the woman and carried her inside. The town watched. Nobody bought bread that afternoon.

In the night, as her parents were away at the hasty meeting, the child lay next to her sleeping sisters and wondered what was in the woman’s bundle. What, she wondered, was worth being clutched so tightly for such a long walk? She had just learned to spell, taught by an older brother who had gone away to be a priest, and with her finger she wrote the possibilities into the darkness: jewels, new dress, baby. With that, she imagined her youngest brother, less than a year old, covered by lumps, and leaned over to touch him. She said his name into the dark room, and when he grunted and turned under her hand, she knew all was right with the world.

When there were still hours until dawn, her parents came back, and she watched them in the flickering light from the lantern as they whispered; her great, bearded father who rarely spoke, her small mother who sang. They quietly roused the children. Silent, silent, their father whispered: they were to pack the things in the wagon. Skis, flour, chickens, feed, tools, bedclothes. The littlest were sent into the garden to pick what vegetables they could in the dark. She loved the glossy surprise of a tomato beside its furred leaf in the darkness, the firm carrots in the damp soil.

At last, they hitched the horse, and her brothers led the cows out. She patted her favorite, a buttery long-lashed cow with a new bull calf. They moved off, ghostly in the moonlight. Like the woman who had come into town that day, the girl held a bundle in her arms, but in her case it was only clothing. She found it strange to be climbing in darkness, with her family and animals moving around her, but after a mile, the sun began to stretch over the land. At the top of the pass, they met two other families, and soon a fourth came up behind them. Four godly families, the richest in town. For a while, nobody moved or spoke. They looked at the village below them, so tiny the girl thought she could crush it with her toe like a berry. One of her family’s cocks crowed in the wagon and was answered, far away, by a village cock. A fisherman’s boat moved with terrible slowness into the inlet. They turned, and went over the mountaintop and then it was as if there was no village at all.

For three days they walked. At night, they slept in the open air, watching the sky deepen its late dusk until it was scaled with stars. As they walked, the girl held her sisters’ hands, one older, one younger, and because she was who she was, she told stories. On the first day, the boys played on the side of the road, pretending scorn. By the second they were walking near her to listen. She told of trolls and elves and bears and kings, and what stories she didn’t know she made up. Sometimes she saw her words emerge, tangible, from her mouth, long ropes of letters spooling into the air that stretched toward something they couldn’t quite touch. When she was tired, the children were quiet, thinking, watching the larks weave clouds in the sky, watching the wolves skulking hungrily behind them.

On the third day, they came to a green valley with a small river, tucked safely at the foot of great, blue mountains. In the distance glowed the shocking white of the glacier, and when the wind rose, it brought its cold, fresh scent. The men conferred, decided here was the place. They would leave letters under a boulder up at the pass, and a rider from the village would come once a week to take them. They were safe.

The men went off to cut logs for the houses, to be built with four-hundred strides between them. The women made stews. The cows lowed happily in the rich, green grass.

Summer turned to autumn, and winds from the glacier blew colder. Picking berries at the cave half a morning’s walk up the mountain, the girl saw her older sister kiss a boy from one of the other families. The girl was filled with a kind of airy warmth that made her leap to her feet and run as fast down the mountain as she could, spilling berries from her apron. When, breathless, she saw her mother, the words leapt from her mouth before she could stop them. But her mother only laughed and said nothing to the sister at all, and the words were somehow back within the girl, warming her stomach, when she saw her sister so rosy as she combed her hair before bed.

Then, the day the first snow powdered the valley, the smallest boy did not rise in the morning. When his mother turned him over, he was blue, and there were lumps on his chest, neck, face, wrists. He breathed rapidly and could not open his eyes. The three other families conferred, the fathers’ faces grave over their dark beards, The family with the sick child was to stay the winter inside their building, their animals cared for by the others. They would leave a letter under a rock when they needed something. At night, her older sister, who had been kissed by the boy from that family, cried into the girl’s hair, and she couldn’t find the words to comfort her. At last their mother stood from her bed and held her sister, shushing her until she slept.

In the morning, there was a fresh mound of dirt on the far side of the sick child’s house.

For two weeks, there was a warm blue string of smoke trailing from the chimney of the cloistered family’s house. The letters they put under the rock asked for water, eggs, butter. Once, a new toy for the baby. In the girl’s heart, hope fluttered its wings. But one morning there was another mound of dirt by the first, larger this time. Then another, and then another.

Under the rock on the pass, the letters from the village ceased suddenly, and their own letters were left untaken. There was no evidence of horses on the road.

And then, though they tried to keep it quiet, the mother in the second family, diagonal to the girl’s, became ill. The mother had just had a baby, and the girl watched their house anxiously until one morning, beside their door, there appeared two mounds, one large, one tiny.
The smoke from the first family’s house died that day.

The next, the girl’s older sister woke her in the night, took her hand, had her feel a lump on her neck in the thick dark. The wind wailed outside and carried with it the sound of wolves. By dawn, the girl’s sister was alive, wheezing, bluish, but the baby brother was not. The girl read her sister’s pulse in her wrist until there was no longer any pulse at all. When they buried her and the baby, the girl put into their clenched hands letters on which she had written their names over and over and over again, so they couldn’t forget who they were in the afterlife.

The girl’s father and the father of the last family met in the field, and shouted from twenty paces to one another. When her father came in, he looked unsteady, death etched into his face. The eldest boy from the other family had died in the night.

They broke bread silently for their supper. When they finished, the girl’s brother who was almost a man pointed silently at a lump risen on his own face during the meal. He said a prayer aloud, then went into the cold with a blanket, to sleep in the cow-shed, away from the healthy ones. It didn’t matter, in the end.

The girl’s siblings, one by one, died. She put letters in each of their hands, names like prayers, before they pushed the dirt over them. The girl milked the cows, fed the chickens. Her own mother was dumb with grief.

The smoke stopped abruptly from the second house.

One night, her father died. The girl had thought this was impossible: he was immense, a town father, had once brought back gold and a strange goblet from a faraway raid; he had once, it was whispered in town, slain a troll.

The mother woke to his cold body and called her daughter over. She could feel it rising in her, also, she said. She told the girl to free the chickens, free the horses, free the cows from all the families. She should take one cow with her, take fire and grain and hay and an axe and all the clothes she could. Take the bible. Take skis. Go to a place where she could live the winter without talking to another human. Have faith in God.

The girl, the mother said, was blessed. Then she closed her eyes and pressed her face to the cold back of her husband. She was unable to say more, the girl saw. The world had broken her heart.

As the wind sang over the glacier and down from the mountains, the girl went into the dark morning, skiing as best as she could over the snowmounds. Blessed, blessed, blessed, blessed, her mother’s last word, beat in the girl, warmed her courage. The other houses she found cold and dark, a terrible smell risen around them. The frightened cattle huddled against the wind, the chickens were small balls of snow. She opened their enclosures and cages.

When she returned to her own house, the embers were dying. She pulled a blanket over her parents, sprinkled a clump of dirt over them that she’d held against her chest until it had thawed. When dawn crept blue into the valley, she fed their cows and chickens for the last time and set them free, all save the buttery long-lashed one she’d chosen. She strapped her things to this cow and pushed off on her skis, pulling the beast through banks of snow.

Behind her, she could feel the wolves spiraling down into the settlement. Before her, their footprints had written their hunger into the snow.

For hours they struggled over the path that, in autumn, had been so easy. At last, the cow refused to move and, in a shelter of scrubby pines, they rested. The wind blew hard snow into her eyes, began to sound like a chant from the mountains, whose refrain she could almost, but not quite, understand. The cow hid her face against the girl’s belly and, over time, her breath warmed her. When they began to move again, the girl couldn’t feel her hands and only followed the cow up the treacherous path.

As the last of the weak winter day died, they found the cave. But it was barred solid by great, thick icicles that hung like columns from its lip to the ground. The girl pushed against one, beat at it with her frozen hands, and at last with the axe she wedged between them, but it wouldn’t break. On her cheeks, her tears felt warm before they froze. She sat, huddled against the wind. The cow looked at her dumbly for a moment, then turned and kicked. The icicles shattered enough for them to enter.

The cave was almost hot out of the wind. It smelled musty, dank: there were sticks and stool of small animals crunching underfoot. The icicles formed a window that in the last of the light showed smooth, dark walls, a tunnel black as tar. The cow knelt on the ground, her eyes rolling in fear, her nostrils spread, smelling something bad. But it was too exhausted, and the girl was somehow able to untie her things before the beast fell onto its side, already sleeping. The girl pulled a blanket over herself and curled up next to the warm animal and fell asleep.

Morning, silver in the cave from the wall of ice. The cow was standing, licking a small pool of water. The girl rose sore, her cheeks and hands aching. She looked at her fingers: the nails were black, but already the flesh was returning to pink. She tried to spell her own name in the air, but they were no longer good instruments for that, and she stopped on the fourth letter. When she stood, she could hear small movements all around her, a sound from very deep in the tunnel that was rhythmic, like breathing.

The girl sat again, knees weak with fear. Her own stories returned to her, and she imagined trolls in the deep with their stone teeth, thirsty for human blood. She imagined great dragons, jealous as snakes. She imagined bears sleeping belly to belly, their claws clicking together like knives.

She looked at the cow, which seemed resigned to fear, shuddering only a small bit. Her udders were monstrous, swollen pink, and she was rubbing them on the wall. The girl whispered the cow’s name in the dark, to have something solid to hold onto, but when she did, there was a long pause in the breathing noise at the end of the cave, and she knew she could never say anything in there again. When the breathing resumed and the night grew deeper until she could no longer see a thing, she crept under the cow and milked her directly into her own mouth. The milk was warm and sweet and rich, and the girl drank deeply until both she and the cow were comfortable.

The winter was very long. The girl went outside every morning to clear the snow down to the grass for the cow to eat, and returned inside until it was time for the beast to come in again. She would build a fire only when it was too cold to sleep, and ate sparingly the apples and nuts and dried meat she’d brought, drinking mostly from the cow.

After a few days, her eyes became used to the darkness, and she began to see the source of movement, if not the breathing sounds. In a crevice, there hid a small family of snow birds that emerged shyly into the day every morning and returned through the hole in the icicle-window at night. When she had to go outside, her eyes began to hurt, so she began to leave to get wood or the cow only just before dawn and just at dusk. Every day, she could see deeper into the cave until a day came that she could, at last, see to the vast form at the very end. Once, she saw an open golden eye glittering at her before it closed.

For a while, she tried to read the bible she’d brought, but it was too dark, and the words she could pick out seemed useless to her. She used the book as a pillow, and found the cow eating a leaf from it one day, and tried, hard, to care.

In the beginning, to pass the time, she tried to tell stories in her head, to spin them as she had once done, but since she could not speak, nor even whisper, her words began to melt into images. She no longer thought the word snow, but imagined whirling flakes in the air. Every time she thought of her family, the pain made her put them away again, quickly. In time, as the winter in the mountains stretched long into what would have been spring in the long-ago village, her family began to be replaced in her head by the creatures around her.

The snowbirds, huddled warmly together, were her brothers and sisters.

The cow, kind, gentle, giving, supplanted her mother. The girl, hungry to be touched, slept draped around the warm, good body.

The vast, breathing creature at the end of the cave was her father, stern and dangerous, but giving its warmth to the cave. Its breath began to meld with the sound of the wind, the ice cracking, the branches in the trees, even the distant wailing wolves, who had become, to the girl, the outside world.

It was sudden, the spring. The icicles, which had been melting, cracked and fell like a wall and exposed the cave to the day. The snowbirds left and did not return. One morning, when the cow had departed the cave on her own, the girl awoke and felt a hot breath move from her toes to her ankles to her knees to her thighs to her stomach to her throat to her face. She opened her eyes to an enormous bear. His mouth was twice the size of her head, his body the size of a house. For a moment, they stared at one another. His breath rushed in her face, and her heart beat slower and slower until she couldn’t hear it at all. Then the bear gave a mighty grunt and moved out into the day.

When the girl came, at last, into the sunlight, blinking, the snow was very thin on the ground, and the glacier cracked angrily, far away. The girl looked into the valley, where green grass was pushing up through the snow, to where the cow was eating, nuzzling the tender shoots from the earth. She watched as, from the trees below her, the bear came enormous into the sun, seeming to lollygag, but moving swiftly. The cow looked up. The bear was upon her. The body fell to the ground, spraying the snow, the green grass, with bright blood.

The girl stayed night in the cave through the spring, into the summer. In the dusk, she would go to the river and wait until the fat fish moved toward the surface. She would dip her hand into the freezing water, pluck the fish out, smash its head on a rock. She’d roast the fish over the fire she’d made and sleep, blanket spangled with bones. Eventually, the fire seemed unnecessary, the fish equally delicious raw.

She lost the bible; some creature had found it and carried it away. She didn’t notice.

Trees budded; fruit came. The grass ripened to gold, like a prayer. The warmth of the summer touched her hands, infinitely gentle. The stars and moon beamed brightly down and filled her with an equal silvery light; the glacier in the distance winked and sang and moved, ever so slowly, and only now could she understand it. Once in a while it would say her own name, but no other words; then, she began to listen to the ancient voices of the rocks of the mountain, and when she began hearing those, she lost even her name.

She could hear the dark movements of the trolls in the deep, deep stone beneath her.

She learned the catechism of the singing insects, the ptarmigans flitting into the sky, the deer, the immense stink of the bear when it was near.

In the heat of the end of summer, she took off her ragged dress to swim in the icy river and found it washed away when she came out. When it was gone, she forgot about clothes, and, naked, crouching by the river, watching for a fish, she was filled with light.

The universe spun, the girl at its axis. It was a circle, and her body bent itself into a circle, to match.

The world was full of grace. The girl was full of god.

The world sang and sang to her that she was the only one of her kind, and it was good.

In late autumn, those who were left in the village found a cow emerging from over the hills with the brand of one of the four departed families on its haunch. The village had lost nearly everyone: there were two dozen where there had been a thousand.

The cow walked down the main thoroughfare and stopped to eat a flower.

A young boy and his father were dispatched to discover what had happened to their kin, their fellow villagers, deep in the mountains. Under the rock on the pass, they found dozens of letters, melted into one another.

Emerging into the little settlement, the four rude houses so distant from one another, they discovered only bones, of chicken and cattle, of humans. They had seen too much already to feel much sorrow: this was life, and life was hard. They buried what they could, gathered the best goods from each house, hitched a wagon to their horse, started off in the long summer dusk, mostly to find a campsite far from that cursed place.

But as they moved again up the mountain, toward home, the boy, whose eyes were sharp, gave a cry and pointed. In the distance by the river was a living thing too small to be a bear, too pale to be a wolf. The boy and his father left the horse and wagon on the road and crept through the darkening woods toward the creature. It had a bulbous, dark head, a smooth brown body. From behind a tree, they watched it as it dipped its paw into the river and brought out a writhing fish, then killed it on a rock. When it stood, stooped over itself as if it had been kept in a tight place for a long time, they saw it was a girl of maybe eight. She was skinny, filthy, hair matted into a helmet around her shoulders. By her face they knew her as the bright and chatty daughter of one of the departed families.

She was weak, easy to catch. But she fought, biting and clawing them so they tied her hands and feet. The father, who was unmoved by the houses full of bones, wept. The son, eyes stung by her stink, vomited, then ran back to the wagon for a blanket and soap. They force-washed the girl in the river and she, exhausted by fighting, fainted. As he carried her back to the wagon, the boy looked down into her face and saw a hardness there that made him shiver. And in the wagon, on the long road home, the girl curled into a ball and made sounds like a wounded bird.

Over time, she learned again to eat with utensils, though not to sew; her hands were too deformed to hold a needle. She learned to dress. Her cheeks, blasted as they’d been by winter, were permanently rosy. Her skin, nourished through the winter by the kind cow, was permanently milky. She would look nobody in the face, skittered away like a frightened beast when people came too close. And though she learned again to understand words, the questions they put to her, she would never speak again. Words had died in her.

When a man who wanted a quiet wife married her at thirteen, she complied. In the darkness, she would listen to the distant chant of the wind and the rocks and trees so closely she didn’t mind what her husband was doing. In that way, she had twelve children, all noisy, telling stories.

grave

In that way, too, she died young, during the birth of her thirteenth child, on the day when a vast bear wandered through town, making the houses shake with his footsteps, and the men were too cowardly to try to kill him.

Because the priest was too frightened to leave the church, clutching his heart through his vestments, feeling it falter, she did not, in the end, get her last rites.

The midwife said that the moment she died, she was so caught in the bloodied sheets that she looked swaddled, her arms pressed tight to her body. Her head was thrown back. And her mouth was gaping open, as if she’d died shouting. Or, maybe, singing.

___
Lauren Groff‘s first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, published in February 2008, was a New York Times and Booksense bestseller, and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for New Writers. Her second book, Delicate Edible Birds, is a collection of stories. Her short stories have also appeared or are forthcoming in a number of journals, including The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, One Story, Five Points and Five Chapters, and in the anthologies Best American Short Stories 2007, Pushcart Prize XXXII, and Best New American Voices 2008. She lives in Gainesville, Florida with her husband Clay, son Beckett, and dog Cooper.

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