By Emma Gerber
It wasn’t until she reached the river that Arden realized that she had, in fact, been going the right way. It was hard to feel as if she wasn’t constantly lost in the wild, surrounded by unfriendly rivers and trees that were much too lush to not be hiding something. But these trees weren’t new, and neither was the river. Instead, it was Arden who felt new and exposed. She had seen this spot many times; the first time in her recollection was when she was seven, passing through with her people. That spring had evolved from a relief for any warmth to an insufferable haziness, packed as densely with heat as the trees were with leaves. They had stopped at the river, leaning down towards the darkened muddy water to have a sip. Arden hadn’t felt lost then – although she supposed it must have been much easier not to feel lost when there was nowhere to be lost from and nowhere to return to. That wanderer’s life had ended when Aunj had declared it was time to “settle down”.
“The sun will become tired if we keep chasing it,” she had declared, swaying slowly side to side, staring towards the red horizon. “We will stay here tonight, and the night after that, and if the trees allow it we will stay every night after, until the river runs its course through the mountain – then we will move on.” With that Aunj disappeared into the trees, no doubt to visit the river.
“Wait!” cried out a voice from among the people. “If we stop following the sun, how will she know we are devoted? How will the river know we are still his friend? Surely time will stop when we stop – the sun will never rise without us pushing her along and the river will lose faith without a companion running beside him. To build our home in that mountain is to hide from the ever calling river and sun. We musn’t stop. We mustn’t and we can’t. ” The rustling in the trees stopped. Aunj’s voice reached out from the trees to grab the speaker by the ear.
“You musn’t forget that we are not the sun, nor the river, nor the wind. We can not move endlessly, nor can we shape the earth. No, we are the bear and the turtle, who must move slowly and stop to hibernate. The summer is over and the winter has arrived. It is time to lay our provisions and settle down.” With that Aunj pulled herself away, leaving only the rustle of leaves and the silence that followed.
Since the beginning of Aunj’s memory, which was the oldest resource Arden could think of, their people had roamed the plains and the mountains. The places they passed through had no name; Arden supposed it seemed silly to name the endless eternity they wandered through, as if it could be divided evenly into independant landscapes. Arden’s people also had no name, not because they were surrounded by eternity but because they were surrounded by nothing and no one. There was no need for a name when it was always just “we” and “us”. And before Aunj’s memory, Arden had always supposed there was nothing. No one had ever spoken of a time before Aunj, and Arden didn’t think anyone ever would. But now, just in the time span of Aunj’s life, everything was changing.
Eventually, Arden moved from the trees to find her mother. As she moved through the crowd, she could sense something new. There was a coldness in the whispers that surrounded her, and disdain in the glances towards the woods. The woods were filled with shock as people moved about slowly, discussing what had just happened. At the heart of it all was Arden’s mother, Jixa, who was conversing with a few women.
“Aunj always knows, Jixa.” One woman said. “It will turn out okay in the end. It always does.”
“We can’t just believe that.” Jixa looked at the ground in deep contemplation, wrinkles sliding onto her silken forehead. “Because what if…What if it’s not?” The group fell silent. There was no answer to that question, just as there was no answer to where the moon went during the day or where Jixa’s thoughts were when she gazed towards the sun, as she did every night before it was time to sleep. Such were the mysteries of the universe, Arden supposed.
For the first few days, it felt like nothing had changed. It wasn’t uncommon to stay somewhere for more than one day, stocking up on supplies and getting some rest. But as the weeks rolled by, it became apparent that life was going to look a lot different from that point forward. Life looked a lot different because the surroundings didn’t – Arden was tired of looking at the same tangled trees and the same shallow river. She wished to explore new places, chase gazelles across the fields, and sleep under the brightest suns. Most of all, Arden wished to talk to the stars again, encouraging them to grow big and strong like their mother, the sun. But instead of lying out under the stars, her people became people of the stone, hiding away in a cave they had found at the base of the mountain. At first the cave had seemed small and unsuitable for living. It was dusty and always full of unruly winds that would scatter their supplies, destroying hours of neatly piled work.
Days later, Aunj appeared at the door of the cave. Saying nothing, she walked straight down the middle of the cave, as if in a trance. When she reached the back of the cave, she raised her hand to the wall and took a deep breath. Placing her palm on the wall, she took a deep breath and called out.
“This stone must go.” Arden looked at her in astonishment. What did she mean? To move stone? Aunj must have spent so much time by the river on her journey that she was confusing it’s powers for her own.
“Aunj, how will we move that stone? We are not the river, as you said before,” Arden said. “We are only people.”
“Yes, but we are companions of the river. And the river has told me that this stone must leave. ” Aunj was gentle but firm, as always, yet her eyes held the energy of a roaring river, ready to destroy anything in its path. “Come help me.” Aunj beckoned to some of the women, who were whispering in the corner of the cave. “Pick up that stone next to you. Come. We must be done soon.”
By the time the owls began to welcome the moon to the sky, Aunj and several others had chiseled enough out of the back wall to discover that there was something on the other side. Looking back, it was the lack of something on the other side of the stone that was important – instead of stone, there was a vast space, a cavern bigger than anything Arden had ever seen, besides the sprawling savanna and the rambling oceans. With gentle astonishment, Arden and her people stepped through the wall and into the cave.
“Aunj, we can not stay here.” A voice spoke out from the crowd, once again. For the first time, Arden’s people turned to see who from among them had spoken. It was the same speaker from the forest – Jixa, Arden’s mother. Aunj turned slowly, her body tense and her face frozen into a calm but bitter expression.
“If that is what you truly believe, my child, you may leave.” Aunj trembled only slightly, standing as if she was about to be hit by a tsunami. Arden felt as if she should reach out to hold her hand – but she stayed still as she could be, breathing so little that the cave seemed to spin around her.
“It is what I believe, Aunj. There is something in this cavern, something that should not be here. That something is us, Aunj. We must go before we disturb the soil by crawling into her closed fist and settling, waiting for her to crush us. We must go.” Once again, silence filled the cave. Suddenly Aunj’s long awaited reply echoed out, as clear and cold as the sea.
“We cannot go, but you must. We have not entered the soil’s fist, but her heart, and you have succeeded in making it bitter already. Go, and may the river bless your journey.”
Jixa’s eyes were fixed on Aunj as she quietly gathered her supplies. With one final stare, Jixa walked out of the cavern and into the blackness beyond. Silent disbelief echoed through the wide chamber. Never before had a member of the tribe left, much less been banished.
Finally catching her breath, Arden got up and ran out into the wild after her mother. The night was dark, but the moon cast a shadowy path on the ground, leading towards the north. Arden followed this path, calling out as she went.
“Jixa! Jixa!” Arden did not know what to say besides her mother’s name. Hew jaw felt too heavy and her pulse much too fast. Yet Arden kept running, stumbling as she went. She didn’t know how much longer she could make it, but she couldn’t turn back, not now. When Arden finally stopped to take a breath, she heard a familiar sound. It was the gentle gurgle of the river Arden had come across near the start of her stay here. Once again, Arden came to the river feeling lost.
“Why are you still running, my friend?” Arden asked the river, dipping her hand into its warm water. “It is night, it is time to rest. You can catch up to the sun tomorrow, don’t worry.” Arden sat down at the edge of the river, wondering how she had gotten to this place and to this point. None of it had been her doing. Like a leaf in the river, Arden had been swept down a path with no clear end. She was lost in an ever growing wilderness, newly exposed to bitterness and hate. Years later, Arden might have cried over this fact. But Arden found some comfort in the inevitable nature of it all, the way that the river will always keep flowing no matter how many rocks it runs into.
“Arden?” A voice spoke softly from the other side of the stream. It was Jixa, stepping out from the shadows behind the river. “Why are you here, Arden?”
“I came to find you. I wanted to make sure you were okay.” Arden whispered, realizing how foolish her thought now seemed. Of course Jixa was okay. She had never not been okay, not since the sun was created.
“Thank you, Arden.” Jixa let out a deep sigh. Motioning for Arden to follow, she spoke again. “I’ll bring you home.”
“Do you not want me to stay here?” Though she tried not to show it, Arden was not surprised. Jixa had always been independent, straying from the group to follow her own path. Arden had always known this was a path that she could not follow as well. Still, when she exhaled, she could feel a melancholy air left where her breath had been.
“I do, Arden, I really do. Just give me some time to figure this out.” Jixa sighed again, a deeply concentrated look sliding over her face.
The walk home was silent. Arden did not want to disturb her mother’s deep thoughts, as she often did when she was little. This was going to be one of the biggest tests Jixa had ever encountered. When they arrived at the cave, Arden and Jixa stopped, staring into the warm light from inside. Without a word, Jixa kissed Arden on the top of the head and disappeared silently into the night, as if she was never there at all.
The next morning Arden awoke to the sound of stone hitting stone. Her people had been busy at work, mining out sections of wall inside the great cavern to make seperate rooms. One of these rooms was already finished. Arden peaked inside. On the floor of this room was woven cloths, and on this cloth was Aunj, silently praying. Just as Arden was about to leave, Aunj spoke out.
“Where did you go last night, Arden?” Aunj had opened her eyes and was now staring directly at Arden. Flustered, Arden chose not to answer.
“What is this room, Aunj? Why does it exist?” Arden looked around once again. The room was fairly square, except for the rounded corners that her people had not been able to mine the stone out of. Her eyes returned to Aunj, who seemed to be contemplating Arden.
“Is your mother alright?” Again, Arden didn’t answer. After more contemplative staring, Aunj gave up and moved on. “This room is mine, Arden, and the one next door will be yours, and your mother’s.”
“Why do we need seperate rooms, Aunj? We have slept under the same stars for as long as I can remember,” Arden said quietly.
“It is time to move on. We can not live the same way we always did and expect to flourish. It is time, and we must.” Aunj and Arden stood in silence for some time. Finally, Arden slipped out of the door, still deep in thought. Aunj’s voice reached out once again from inside her room.
“You will be welcome back any time, Arden.” Arden stopped, and exhaled again, feeling the same melancholiness she had felt in the woods the night before. Of course Aunj already knew, just like of course her mother was alright. Even though everything was changing, sometimes some things never did.
In the last few days Arden stayed in the cave, she didn’t see Aunj once. Arden just assumed she was praying. Every once in a while some of her people would go inside Aunj’s room and receive instructions on what new rooms to build and what new tasks to do. Every time when they came out, they seemed surprised to see Arden still there. Mumbling amongst themselves, they set to work, staring at Arden from a distance.
It was now that Arden finally realized that much like the trees in the nearby forest, her life before had also been much too lush to not be hiding something. Arden did not recognize the people she had known in her childhood – the ones who ran under the stars and never worried about the danger of adventure. Her whole life, she had lived as part of this group, this single entity that followed the laws of nature without question. Now, they followed Aunj without question, without joy, without love. Through this they rebelled against the wild, turning instead to stone and man-made caverns to define them. Arden did not know where these people had come from, but she knew that she could not follow, no matter how much she loved Aunj.
When the full moon finally rose again, Arden knew it was time. She gathered her stuff, took a few portions of food, and tried her best not to peek into Aunj’s room one last time. Taking a deep breath, she gathered her courage and stumbled out into the star filled night.