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We saw beneath the light of a piercing cloudless dawn something small and pale and pitiful was floating.
High on the dark broken cliffs that stood always saltslick and glistening like cascading sheets of black rain frozen and rooted in the earth, gone to seed across the hard oval bay from where we and our village around us lay nestled in more human slopes, firelight flickered in the mouth of a cave. Flickered in the mouth of a cave where no one would have gone and started one we were quite sure, a high desolate aperture in cracked and jagged sheets of bare rock far up above where the tendrils of dirt and grass and stubborn, clinging mountain bush choked itself out, having exhausted every crack and gully and gradation gentle enough for the earth to climb and hold itself to like some great formless grasping beast, up where there was nothing but the wind and the shorn rock and narrow ledges and scant fingerholds worn smooth and treacherous, always damp and pregnant with slime carried by the humid air drifting in off the sea, and where you would be alone with the world and the elements and no matter how sure your foot or well-fixed your rope, we were sure, you would be powerless before the implacable unknowable Will of Creation – a light there, a firelight flickering, flickering in some antechamber whose dimensions were hidden from us by the height of its perch such that in our binoculars we could only see the dome of mud-tarnished rock which was the cavern’s roof, strangely well-formed as though it had been shaped by the hand of an enormous sculptor too sure of his work to be concerned that the marks of his fingers remained upon it, a dome lit now, for the first time we could remember, by a flickering, dancing firelight, so high and so far away, coming from somewhere inside the mouth of a cave where none of us would dare to go. Certainly not on a night as dark as this we all agreed, a night as dark as any of us, the youths of the village, could remember from our short lives, a night like a sightless eye with the moon plucked out of the firmament and all the stars looking away. And it had not been dusk when we forst saw the firelight dancing on the ceiling of that high domed chamber but already fully night and this night a night, at that, which was especially deep especially unyielding, and the light might not have been seen at all had we not again slipped out after the curfew which no one expected to be upheld, not really, not here in this provincial village so distant from the nation’s great and consequential affairs and where the news arrived on the backs of mules three days out of date, but which nonetheless it was understood pretenses must be maintained about, pretenses which occasionally resulted in a beating for one or two or three of us from Adolfo our lone policeman, no longer young but still dutiful – dutiful but, usually, easy to evade and so we had slipped out as we usually did, to smoke and talk and drink from earthen jugs and sometimes warm ourselves together, and we had seen the firelight flickering in the mouth of the cave and we had known that our night was no longer usual, and that the day after would not be either, and the future had become a quarter-turn more uncertain at least and held a threat behind its tongue.
So that first unusual night we watched the light. We smoked and drank but scarcely talked scarcely touched and after waiting a little while and seeing that the light did not flicker out, one of us ran and woke old Lucio in his cottage on the rise, old Lucio who would have been mayor, we were often told, if the man who was our mayor now had not come to our village when he did and had not worn the clothes he did and had not shaken your father’s hand the way he did, without apology without the slightest falter in his eye – ran and woke him because we could see that this was something beyond us something that was of a different order than us, something that he needed to see. And old Lucio came down to where we had gathered in a dip in the land around a ruined crumbling wall of lichen-kissed old weathered stone half-fallen and eroded but flecked still along the base on one side with faded chips of an old fresco whose subject we were never told and could not quite discern, a dip half-hidden below our village where our voices didn’t carry on the wind and where there was a clear view off across the bay to the cliffs standing silent and not quite dark on the far other side, and he looked at the firelight up in the cave and did not say anything, and his expression was dark fully and gaunt in a way we had never seen him look before and his stubble stood on his cheeks like a pale forest and it was as though wherever he looked the fire was reflected in his eyes, and finally he told us that we should go home but he knew we would not, and that now it made no difference anyhow, he told us this and then without another word he left, he was gone. And just as he knew we would we stood watching the flicker of the fire in the cave distant like a candle burning at the bottom of some deep inverted pit with the night all around and behind it, stood long into the young hours of the morning and increasingly became like sentries on guard, on guard against what we didn’t know and our eyes were heavy and our feet grew sore and we leaned against the side of the ruined wall and folded our arms and slapped our faces and forced ourselves to keep our heads tilted upwards our gazes on the mouth of the cave, and our eyelids would droop and our heads would droop and we would snap awake again and so on until we lost all sense of bearing. Then suddenly now the light was gone the fire had been extinguished and we were not sure when it had happened or that we had seen the actual moment itself and the first rays of dawn were shading the depthless sky and the shepherds had come out onto the hills and their flocks were grazing softly bleating and jangling dull tin bells in the dewy morning air and they were unknowing and indifferent to what had held our thoughts the whole long night. And while we had stood and not gone home old Lucio had gathered the other elders of the village those whom everyone trusted and whom despite it all we still believed could trust, gathered them and told them of the fire in the cave and what it had meant to them and what they had said we did not know and could not know. That noontime in the meeting hall still half-riddled with sleeplessness and with the sun hidden behind a billowing cloud we gathered with the rest of the village and the elders told to the gathered crowd what we had seen and we felt both a part of the crowd and apart from it, felt as if what they said was especially for us and not for us at all with a meaning we could not guess as they warned all of us gathered not to go near it, that it was best that we turn our heads away from it and act as though it was not there. We wondered at this but did not question it for we heard the tremor in their voices and the haltings in their speech and knew they were the traces of a real and primal fear, knew it although it was not like any we had known before. And through this warning the Mayor stood at the back of the hall hands clasped below his waist in his crisp charcoal suit and listened and did not say a word and left before the rest of us, long before any of us.
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The day passed and it was stiller, quieter than most days we had known – like the day after a storm that had come up out of nothing and howled and raged and swept an overwhelmed boat out to sea with our fathers and brothers still aboard, taken and never returned. The sun got lost in the alleys of our village and the blades on our hills and glistened only on the high cliffs across the bay which looked higher and colder now than they had ever been before, than we had ever seen them before and they hung like an omen over what few people there were in the streets and in the market square and hanging up washing in their yards, far fewer than we were accustomed to, and we noticed in the eyes of our parents and our grandparents and all those we happened to see who were past a certain age some look which they tried to conceal from us and almost but not quite were able to and that in that look they were at war with themselves over something we did not know some feeling we did not understand and were not privy to but felt all the same, could not help but feel with the cliffs always above us and the cresting and the falling of the waves always below always in our ears like the sound of a broken radio lying abandoned beneath the stars.
The night came and we sat in our homes and lay in our beds until it had well and truly settled down upon us and then we snuck out again and made little pretense of it, made little pretense for on this night and in this atmosphere even Adolfo would understand, we thought, that something was gripping our village which was more important and more urgent than the directives from the capitol and would let us be at least for a while there in the darkness, to do what we could not quite say except that do it we must – and he did, we passed him at a distance on the edge of the village and he glared and put his hand upon his club but did no more than that did nothing more than that, and at first the night was only dark and we wondered almost if our elders had not after all been unnerved by some old story or superstition had not been rash in what they had said, but then we looked again and saw a flickering glow in the mouth of the cave the same as we had seen before and we knew we had not really believed ourselves, had only been vainly hoping we might quiet to our own uncertain and undirected fear. And the fire glowed and danced in the cave mouth high up on the saltslick cliffs and we were silent and standing by the same crumbling wall gazing upwards we felt an aching all-consuming tiredness settling in our bones and knew tonight could not, would not be like the night before and one by one we turned and went back to our homes and to our beds and soon we lay like the whole village silent and still and each of us fallen into a restless sleep, with no candle burning in any window and with no wind in any trees. Our dreams were full of nameless fire and when the sun finally rose and cast its rays into our eyes we awoke and felt as if the fire had come down from the cliffs and entered into into us into our village into our homes and beds, and the feeling did not leave the whole day, the whole day it was as if the fire was burning behind our eyes and at the bottom of our throats even and especially when we looked towards the cliffs and saw the cave mouth just a graceless hole leached from the rock dark and empty and meaningless as a smudge of ash. There was another meeting and our elders repeated again what they had said before, told us once again that we must not go near the cave and must not try to scale the cliffs and must not cross over even to the other side of the bay, where no one lived at all and foxes hunted careless shepherd’s flocks in long dark shadows that lasted half the day, we all must stay away until this time had passed – and someone in our midst asked them what they meant, what time was this and how did they know it would pass and the elders closed their eyes and did not answer them.
The Mayor stood at the back of the gathering again and we saw this time Beatrice was with him, Beatrice who we understood was from a farm somewhere deeper in the hills and who had been a servant in the Mayor’s house for several years now, a girl who was no older than any of us but who stood quietly apart from us with large dark eyes and long dark hair who looked to us now and always both older than her years and somehow unfinished and faintly pitiful, as if her Creator had grown tired of her before he had decided what she was to be and with cold indifference sent her out into the world still partially undefined with pale white seams across her skin and sketch marks on her bones. We saw her only rarely and never spoke to her, for on those occasions when she was sent into town to the grocer’s or some other errand she always kept her eyes downturned and spoke only to the shopkeep spoke always softly and with impeccable politeness – a girl, we were told whenever the subject arose, who had true manners and true humbleness and who understood the value of respect. It was often said as well that the Mayor was generous to have taken her on as he did, having no need of another servant, simply because she had had no prospects and nowhere else to turn after her mother had died and left her orphaned, her father an unknown and dubious question mark who was presumed to have suffered some ignoble fate many years ago and with no other family of any sort. But we had wondered always why she was allowed to leave his sprawling villa on the outskirts of our village so rarely, and what it was that made up her days behind the white walls of its courtyard beyond which common people such as us were so rarely given leave to enter. We wondered too why she had accompanied the Mayor here today to stand behind him with eyes downcast and an expression as blank as a saucer of milk on her face, there at the back of the meeting hall full of quiet anxious murmuring, but there were to be no answers for the Mayor once again said nothing and left before the rest of us with his polished leather footsteps almost silent on the dusty floor and Beatrice following impassively behind him as if on an invisible tether. And outside later talking among ourselves we wondered what the purpose of the meeting had been at all, for the elders’ words had been clear enough on that first day already and there were none we knew among us who would dare to contradict them even if we wanted to, even if we believed we could scale those black and deadly cliffs – and none of us did. Who else would dare? Our minds were full of shapeless apprehensions.
That night none of us snuck out. Watching the shadows lengthen and the sky grow dim on a day of withheld words and glances bearing questions which could not be answered and which knew this and yet asked the question all the same we had all intended to and planned to but as the hour of the curfew chimed quietly on the clocks in our dark houses we all felt, each of us, suddenly overcome by a somnolence so great it was all we could do lethargic and halfgone to find our way to our beds and collapse still clothed, collapse into a deep sleep full of the same nameless fire but more distant now than it had been before more distant and colder and somehow horrifically more immense like something around which the horizon warped, such that it inspired in us a deep and insoluble hopelessness which smothered us unbroken until the dawn crept in and fell across our sweating forms. And in that first light we stumbled out, all of us, groggy and unbeautiful and driven by some instinct whose motive could be named no more than it could be ignored onto the streets of our village and down, down towards the edge of the water towards the bay where as we came upon it we saw beneath the light of a piercing cloudless dawn something small and pale and pitiful was floating, far away on the other side beneath the black indifferent cliffs where as we looked up towards we saw the last flickers of a fire die in the mouth of the cave – extinguish themselves with the finality of a falling star.
A boat was soon made ready and sent out across to that far side and came back bringing with it the pitiful sodden thing, and we saw that it was stiff and bedraggled and that its black hair clung to its face and we saw with a shock like the world tipping gently sideways that it was Beatrice with her eyes closed, her lacy white nightgown clinging to her skin a deep pale wound running across her throat a wound that was very straight very precise and almost like a surgeon’s incision but even more matter-of-fact and even more unapologetic like a purely functional mechanism with which all the blood had been drained from her body. We took her off the boat beside our fathers and our brothers and let her lie there on the dock still wet and dripping from the sea and soaking a dark aura into wood around her, we all gathered around and said nothing to one another said nothing to anyone at all. We realized we had known something like this would happen since we had seen her at the meeting yesterday and seen the way her eyes always avoided ours as if for her to look and be looked back at was more than could be endured, and we could not say why or how we knew but we all knew all the same although we could not understand it any more than we could understand a compass which did not point towards the north but to somewhere else entirely. That she who had true manners and true humbleness and who appreciated the value of respect in a way we were always told we did not, that she of all of us in the village had been the one disobey the elders meant something we knew we did not wish to dwell upon it, not then or there or maybe ever and we found ourselves backing away and leaving and going to find, each of us, a quiet place under the sky where we could sit and try to find some stable point to which we could reattach our understanding to find some sturdy rock amidst the waves, do this while the others dealt with the body.
There would prove to be no water found in Beatrice’s lungs and no marks found upon her body save the one across her slender throat and it would be found that when she had hit the water she had certainly already been dead, had fallen a great distance and been dead along time and had climbed the cliffs in bare feet and clinging nightgown and yet had not slipped or fallen and had not even cut her palms or soles on some sharpened jut of rock – or if she had the wounds had been healed, healed up there in the light of the fire burning in the mouth of the cave. All this would be discovered by our doctor who had been trained in the town across the mountains where the railroad tracks had reached but it was a matter only of formality for all this we already knew, all this we came to realize we knew just from looking at her, each of us in our own in our own hidden quiet place, when we had seen her lying on the dock and seen the look upon her face of final resignation and held it up against every other image of her we had ever known, we realized we had known this in that instant and there was nothing more we ever would. And we sat all day in our places knowing this and did not move and did not eat and did not even drink water, any of us, did not even notice our thirst until the sun had fled across the sky burning and fallen down behind the land and everything around us turned yellow and orange and darker still and we blinked and remembered the world again and rose and walked to the dip in the land, each of us, all of us, and stood around the crumbling wall with the fresco whose subject we were never told and in whose chipped and faded remnants we could only see shapes that looked like bodies but made no sensible order, and the wall felt like a broken shard lodged in the earth as if fallen some great and broken height. We stood and did not speak and did not sleep and saw no fire in the mouth of the cave no trace even of a flicker burning in its silent throat, silent now that it had spoken, spoken and been heard. At dawn we all collapsed, and old Lucio had to help us stagger home.
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