The clan elders send Jonathon on an unwelcome quest in Robert Lowell Russell's fantasy story.
"No," said Jonathon. "I can't do this."
The eldest held out the knife, and Jonathon's hands shook as he took the ancient blade. Behind him, his wife's face was ash. His son clung to her, pressed against the swell of her belly.
"Please," Jonathon said to the elders. "You can't ask me to do this. You can't."
But they could.
They trained at the base of the mountain and each day Jonathon said, "You've made a mistake."
"All those chosen say this," said the youngest. "We've watched you. There's no mistake."
"I can't do this. I don't know how."
"You'll learn," said the woman.
"You don't understand. It isn't in me."
They said nothing.
As months passed, a letter came for him with photographs of his wife and son, and of an infant girl. His wife wished him well and asked of his return. The letter was pleasant, empty. The old woman gave him a second, sealed note, and in it his wife spoke of private things.
While he trained, Jonathon kept the photos of his family pressed against his skin.
When at last the signs came, they brought him to the forest's edge.
"The Mother cannot know what's been done," said the eldest.
"All that we've built dies if she remembers," said the youngest.
Jonathon asked, "Is there no other way?"
"Would you risk inaction?" asked the old woman.
Jonathon touched his shirt where his photos lay. "Why must I wait? It seems cruel."
"Do as you've been trained," said the youngest, "You will know the time."
The old woman held out her hand. "You cannot bring those with you."
Jonathon gave her the pictures and walked into the forest.
A young woman stood, barefoot, at pebbled shore of a small lake. Wind blew ripples across the water. Tall green trees around the lake bent and swayed. In the distance a blue gray peak soared above, shrouded with clouds.
The woman wore a white dress, and the breeze and bluster revealed she wore nothing else. She moved black hair from her face and gazed at the surface of the dark water as if it were glass from a mirror.
He stood behind her, watching her. She had not heard him come through the forest. "Hello," he said.
Turning, she studied him, then smiled. "Who are you?" When she spoke, it was like bird song.
"I'm Jonathon. It's beautiful here."
"Yes, it is. Do you know me, Jonathon?"
"Of course, you're Lilah."
She brightened. "Ah, I'd forgotten. Where did you come from?"
He gestured behind him. "Through the woods."
"Where are your people?" she asked.
"I have no people."
"I'm sorry." Reaching toward him, she touched his hand. "I have people..." She tilted her head, as if listening for a distant sound.
"I'm hungry," he said, quickly. "Are you?"
Pressing her fingers to her stomach, she seemed puzzled. "Yes, I'm starving."
Looking around the lake, he said, "Maybe there are blackberries."
"There," she said, pointing.
Behind him, Jonathon found a wall of blackberry bramble, and he laughed. "I didn't notice that before. Would you like to pick some with me?"
They ate blackberries until their stomachs were bursting and their chins dripped purple. They laughed as they cleaned themselves in the cold water. He splashed at her and she splashed back. For a moment they glared at each other; and then grinning, they flailed their arms, turning the water around them to froth, screaming and shrieking before falling to the ground soaked and giggling.
Shivering in the breeze, he said, "I'm going to build a fire."
Lilah helped him gather wood and grass. After long minutes of swearing and banging stones he got a spark to fall. From a slow trickle of smoke came fire, and then warmth. As the sun fell they sat on each side of the fire, staring at the stars.
He said, "I wonder if there are fish?"
Glancing at the water, she said, "Yes, there are." A loud splash answered in the distance.
She woke the next morning to his shout as he sent a fish flying from the water.
"Give me a minute," he said. "I'll have breakfast for us both."
He flopped though the water, dangling his hands below the surface, until at last, another fish lay gasping next to the first. Cutting them open with a sharp, he set them on the embers.
Lilah disappeared into the woods for several minutes, then returned with a dozen red apples gathered in her dress. The white fabric was bunched well above her thighs and he stared at her. Blushing, she set the apples on the ground and let her dress fall back. She glanced at him, smiling.
They ate, enjoying the flaky white flesh of the fish and the sharp sweet of the apples.
"I was cold last night," he said, "even with the fire. I think I should build us a shelter."
"Isn't there anywhere to go? Isn't there anyone else?"
"There's just the two of us."
"But there was more, I remember." She walked toward the forest. Wind gusted through the trees and the sky darkened.
Clenching and unclenching his hands, he took a breath and said, "There was more once. I will go with you to see what remains if you wish." He moved to join her, then stopped. "But it's far. We should gather food for the journey."
"Will it take long?"
"Not long. Then we'll go together."
She hesitated, then turned back to camp. The wind returned to a gentle breeze. "But what happened?" she asked. "What became of the world?"
He knew this answer. "All things grow old. All things die."
"There are no children?" She looked pained.
He shook his head and turned from her.
"What's wrong?" She put her hand to her mouth. "You had children."
He was not to mention his children, but he faced her. A tear wound its way down his cheek. He nodded, and she came to him and held him to her, placing his head against her breast.
He spent days building a home from sticks, logs, and branches. It was small, and they were forced to lie close to each other at night, his skin touching hers. During the day they gathered fish, fruit, and other food to dry in the smoke of the fire.
One day he told her they must make something to hold water. He said, "If only we had some animal skins," then left to gather firewood. Later, emerging from the forest, he let the wood he carried clatter to the ground, piece by piece. Three deer lay on the shore, their necks broken.
"Are they enough?" she asked.
"Perfect." His body shook as he recovered the wood.
One afternoon, he brought her wildflowers. She held them to her and breathed deeply. Placing a single red flower in her hair, he brushed her face with his hand then kissed her. She pressed her fingers to her lips.
"I'm sorry," he said, backing away, "I shouldn't have..."
She rushed to him and knocked him to the ground. Climbing on him, she returned the kiss. A blast of wind whipped her hair while thunder from a sudden storm boomed around them.
He pulled her dress from her shoulders, and she tore his shirt and dug her fingers into his chest. He winced as she kissed him. Releasing him, she stood long enough to tear his pants and then fall back onto him. She arched her back, and lightning blew a tree to splinters behind her. Hard rain pounded down. Rivulets ran from her breasts to her hips as she moved against him. He coughed and sputtered as rain ran into his mouth.
They spent many days together after, enjoying the freshness following the storm. She touched him often: his hair, his skin, his hands. But even as they lay together, she'd ask of the world and when they would leave to see it. Soon he would say, and she'd frown, the air falling still.
One evening, as dusk turned to night, he wrapped his arms around her, holding her close. She kissed his neck and he let his hands run down her back to rest on her hips. She ran her hands up his leg and they went to lay by the fire, so close they could see it shining in the other's eyes.
"I love you," he said.
Her eyes glittered. "I love you, too."
The fire flared, blazing white, while the shadows danced.
Bathed by dawn's light, Jonathon sat alone on the shore, throwing stones into the blackness. The ripples bent toward him and away.
They'd gone swimming the day before and had made love in the water. Lilah had said she would leave in the morning and asked him if he would come.
"Of course," he'd replied.
She lay behind him now, smiling and still in the shelter. She could be sleeping if not for the knife jutting from her chin.
After a time, he went to her and removed the blade. There was less blood than he thought there'd be. As the sun rose higher, he cleaned the blood from her then wove the red flowers she liked into her hair. Pulling a wall from the shelter, he made a litter. He held her to him before he set her in it. She was so light, as if the world could scarcely hold her.
Five miles lay between the lake and the edge of the forest, but he felt he'd walked days before he came to the clearing. A long, high walled truck lay idling near the road. The men and women who came from it took Lilah and rested her in the back. They did not look at him.
He rode with her body as the truck bounced and slid along the rough road falling from the mountain. Halfway down, he saw the first of the Windborn standards, fixed upright in the earth.
The Windborn returned their dead skyward in great pyres. The flags that marked the passage of their souls were adorned with trinkets and bright colored cloth that danced and popped in the breeze. Thousands upon thousands of flags lay at the base of the mountain, and Jonathon knew they went for miles.
When Jonathon's people had crossed the sea, fleeing lands of dead gods and ash, the Windborn had welcomed them. But take care with the Mother, they'd said.
The clans had not listened, laughing at Windborn superstitions.
As the clans slaughtered them, the Windborn had not resisted. Take care with the Mother, they'd warned.
Still the clans had not listened, laughing at Windborn threats.
When the elders, last three of the Windborn, gave the clans the knife, take care with the Mother they'd begged.
And still the clans had not listened, laughing as the elders screamed.
Lilah lifted her head from his chest and asked, "What should we do today?"
"We could swim."
She smiled, striding to the beach, letting her dress fall to the ground. She looked back at him then dove into the water.
"Is it cold?" he asked and she shook her head.
The chill of the water shocked his skin as he dove in. He shrieked and she laughed. "Liar," he sputtered through chattering teeth.
She swam to him with slow, looping strokes, and wrapped her arms and legs around him. Her touch seared him. "Is that better?" she asked.
She dropped her hand below the water. "And that? Is that better?"
He gasped, nodding again.
"And this?" Pain tore through him and he fell away from her, blood pouring around the knife in his chest.
Jonathon jolted awake and rubbed his ribs. Picking himself up from where he'd fallen in the truck, he staggered back to his seat and looked over the side.
The truck traveled down a rough road torn through plains of carved stones, and on stones were the names of the dead. Windborn souls returned to the air, the clan's rejoined the earth.
Lilah smiled in death. He leaned close to clear her hair from her face, and as he did, his hand brushed her lips. They were still warm.
When the Mother had come for the clans, they did not know her, and they had laughed at her pain. Only a scattered few had survived her rage.
The clans were ready to listen then, but no Windborn were left to teach them.
The clans rebuilt, learning what they could. As time passed, the clans changed, prospered. Now, Jonathon's people had not killed for so long that they sometimes forgot they ever did. But each day the sun rose above the Mother's mountain to fall on plains of stones and standards.
A large garden lay beyond the plains. The truck stopped at its edge. Men and women came and took Lilah's body from the back. They carried her through fields and flowers as Jonathon walked behind. A statue of the Mother stood at the center, surrounded by a shallow pool reflecting the sky.
A pile of wood waited for them. They set Lilah down and wound white silk around her while Jonathon watched. When they'd nearly finished Jonathon said, "Wait."
He kneeled to kiss her. Tears spattered against the silk. He stood and they covered her face. One touched her shoulder as they placed her on the pyre.
A man asked Jonathon, "What name did you give the Mother?"
"A good name," said the man, then lit the blaze.
"You've done well," said the youngest.
Jonathon turned. The elders stood behind him. "Have I?"
"We are safe," said the youngest. "Until the winds bring her back. Then another will be chosen."
The eldest held out his hand, and Jonathon gave him the knife. The old man said, "You were not chosen because you could kill her. All men can kill. She bends the world to her will, even in her slumber, and now she dreams of new love."
"I want them back," said Jonathon to the old woman.
Holding his family's pictures in her hand, she said, "You can't return."
Snatching the pictures from her, he ran to the truck. It moved away from the garden, and he did not look back as the Mother burned.
He rode for a sleepless day and night. As dawn broke, he could smell his sprawling city before he could see it. They entered the gates and crawled through crowded streets. And when he could stand it no more, he asked them to leave him.
While he walked through the city, he imagined that people shied from him when he brushed past, like they knew what he'd done.
At last near his home, he walked past his neighbor's houses. They'd seen the elders at his door and knew what it meant. They called their children in as he moved by.
When he entered his home, his wife looked up, startled. She held his daughter to her breast.
"Dad!" His son ran to embrace him. His wife smiled and brought his daughter to him, placing her in his arms.
"I love you," he said.
Lilah smiled and touched his face. "I love you, too, Jonathon." She ripped the knife across his throat.
He jolted awake, his heart pounding. His wife slept, teetering along the edge of their bed, far from him.
After his children had gone to sleep, she'd kissed him, placing his hand on her breast. She'd trembled as she did. He'd said that he was tired; they'd have plenty of time.
Moving to his son's room, he put his hand on the boy as he slept. Then he went to his daughter's crib and listened to her breathe, a soft rustle in and out as he stood over her. He returned to his bedroom and dressed in silence, taking his pictures with him as he shut the door.
Two elders waited for him outside: the old woman and the younger man.
"Where is the eldest?" Jonathon asked.
"His tasks are finished. I am the eldest now," the old woman replied.
"But there are always three."
"Yes," she said.
"You will always dream of the Mother," said the man.
Jonathon held his hand to his neck. "Does she forgive you?"
"She doesn't remember there's anything to forgive." The man placed his hand on Jonathon's arm. "The dreams will change in time."
The man shrugged. "Lilah was a good name. I called her Alanah."
"Lauren," said the old woman. She closed her eyes and smiled.
"Do you have everything you need?" the man asked.
Jonathon nodded and held out the pictures.
A sudden wind ripped them from his hand.