The Days of Talking Mountains
Alice raised giants on the farm near the borderlands. In the mornings she carefully walked through the fields, the heads sticking out between the twisted trees like small hills of earth. She’d pat them on their heads, stick clumps of oatmeal in their gaping mouths one at a time with a wooden spoon. Some days she would watch them chew, the mouth movements hypnotic. The earth shook with the chew sound, making balance difficult but not impossible.
When she watched the giants she felt a sense of calm. It was a meditation, her thoughts gone—fleeting things. All thoughts were numb thoughts, all her anxieties floating away like sludge in a river. The giants gave her this, and in return she gave them food, gave them light, gave them water, gave them life.
In the evenings she would walk through the rows of heads and reach up to the medicine sacks hooked up to the trees. She filled these with a strange blue liquid, a chemical combination her brother boiled down each morning, using various tubes and beakers and Bunsen burners. She then checked the tubes leading into the heads, made sure they weren’t infected. An infected giant would produce bad dreams, and if the giants released bad dreams then the farm would have to shut down. That thought made her sad and terrified at the same time. She didn’t like that thought at all.
The bandages were loose and some bloodied. But the IV went straight under the skin, the medicine sacks abusing the laws of gravity, delivering the chemicals slowly, yet effectively.
At night she sat on the largest head while the giants slept beneath her, and she watched the stars move between the mountains like arrows. And if she listened closely, she heard the mountains wake in the distance, surrounding her like a ring of talking rock. They usually waited until the giants fell asleep, and then they would wake and talk in deep mountain voices.
She guessed they wanted secrecy. She guessed that the giants probably gossiped, and the mountains didn’t want that.
And then, after that, she fell asleep under the trees, under the moon, under the sky, with the voices of the mountains deep and rumbling. Just like soft thunder in the earth.
Wake up, wake up!
She woke to the brother shouts, and his legs moving quick over hills and trees. Every morning it was the same, his running body shouting wakeful words. And then, back to the hut in the corner of the farm where rusted automatons prepared breakfast. She woke, and stretched with yawn sounds, her body aching with a rising wake ache. She felt sad every morning, and she felt sad every night.
When she woke she was disoriented for just a moment. She had no idea where she was, and that made her happy. But soon, soon, she realized where she was, and then as if on cue she was sad again. It was as if her sadness was inside the environment itself. The ghosts of hope, the memories of what was before, seeped out of the earth and air and filled her with a quiet melancholy.
A cluttered kitchen with a large-belly robot stove, and smaller gentleman robots grilling bacon and such. It had become a ritual for them. A way of keeping sanity after the community died decades ago, leaving only the two siblings to work the farm. Breakfast, breakfast, an anchor of morning, a battle of mourning, it was all they had and all they needed together. Breakfast.
Spoon and fork, dive into clatter clang platters. Her brother with a smile full of eggs, making Alice laugh and almost spit burnt coffee across the table. The table was another robot. Four legs to scuttle around on the ground. Pincher hands to grab food fast the moment it was edible and sliding it onto their plates. Back straight flat, perfect for eating, perfect for holding coffee or whatever you need.
The breakfast conversations always contained the same elements. Minor chitchat without real content. A quiet sadness between the two of them. The breakfast ritual helping them a little, more and more, move on, move past all of the past. When they were done the robots scurried about cleaning, while Alice exited to start her morning ritual of feeding and washing the giants out in the field.
Washing a giant is not easy. Alice has to remind herself of this every single time. If she did not remind herself, she would feel inadequate. She would feel like a failure, and that wouldn’t work, no. Back when the others lived here, back before the great fire and the chaos that followed? Back then there were four or five people to care for each giant. Now it was just her and her brother. That was all there was. Maybe, maybe, that was all there ever was?
Sometimes she thought this. Sometimes she thought the others never existed, and that it was always her and her brother. Day in and day out. Always them. It had been long enough that at times it felt true. At times she couldn’t even remember their faces, or their names. But that did not bring her solace—that did not make her sadness any lighter. It just made the loneliness even louder.
…and she ran between the holes for planting. Humongous human-shaped craters, threatening to devour her. Alice was young then, maybe six or so? There was a sound like the earth was a hungry earth and all of the ghosts were singing her name. She looked back, and the Master stood still, solemn still, stone still, with arms outraised. The chalk doors were open and the brotherhood and sisterhood yanked on chains, pulled large bodies out through the chalk doors. Their bodies harvested from beyond the beyond. The place the Master called the ghostlands. The hauntworlds. We drag them out from the forgotten pits where they live, he said, and we will plant them in this holy ground. This is our future! This is our life!
She hated that memory. It always snuck up on her when she wasn’t looking. When she was just working, just moving through the giants. And then it would come out, become real. And she couldn’t stop thinking about it. She wanted to stop thinking about it. She couldn’t stop thinking about it.
The only hours of peace were at night, when the mountains talked and slowly rocked her to sleep with their low rumble-tone voices. And dreams, her dreams, they were emptiness and void and she welcomed them.
Her brother wouldn’t let her burn the paintings out back by the barn. She tried doing it while he slept a few times but he always woke and stopped her. Like he could sense the fire, the flames licking the oil on canvas, like in some way he was connected to those renditions of the world beyond the world. She hated the paintings of the ghostlands. They reminded her of what was before. Of the burning hours, and the sounds of the giants screaming.
Alice finished the last one. Stood on his forehead, arms scraping down, getting the different fungus and spores clean off. If she didn’t do this daily the giants would be sprouting mushrooms and mold. Maybe even a tree or some plants. She hated seeing them here, and the thought of them slowly being eaten by vegetation made the pit of her stomach drop.
She slid off the head, and it still wasn’t even 4:00 yet. She wanted today to be done, she wanted today to be over. She wanted the emptiness of sleep. Even though she knew it wouldn’t come easy, it would beat these hours of motion, these rituals of the past that they clung to every day, looking for absolution in the repetition of memories.
Her brother stood out by the barn, meditating on the paintings. He was hung upside down with his legs crossed. He didn’t even seem to see her come inside, and she knew she had to wait. She had to wait until this was done and over with. It was their way. It had been the way of the brotherhood and sisterhood for so long.
Even though she never did it, she understood his need for it. This prayer was a way of rebuilding yourself. A way of tearing down your interior worlds and reconstructing them. She understood this need. She just could never find it in prayer or meditation. She found it sometimes in working the fields, in watching the giants sleep, in listening to the mountains speak at night. Each was a form of ritual, and each was a gasping grasp towards something else. Maybe forgiveness. Maybe moving forward. Maybe. Maybe.
When he was done they sat still for a moment. "You’re finished?"
"Yes," she said. "I finished for the day."
More silence between them.
"Why…why do we do this?"
Her brother frowned. "The simplest answer is that we promised."
"No. Our parents promised. And they’re all gone and dead now. We don’t need to keep promises to ghosts, do we?"
"I promised. Me. I did, before you were born. I swore between the chalk doors, with fire and fist. I promised. I just always assumed you did too. Didn’t you? We all did. I could’ve sworn you did as well."
She didn’t know how to respond to this. So instead she turned around and left.
Some rituals are made to forget the past. For example, the morning breakfast, the afternoon dinner. All were things that the brotherhood and the sisterhood never even tried to do. It was always eat when you’re hungry, never a communal thing. Here, it was always a communal thing now. With the automatons helping them out, helping them forget it all.
And some rituals are made to remember. Cleaning the giants, feeding them. How could you forget if they are there, staring at you? Forcing you to remember. And there were other moments too. Once a month they take the paintings out from the barn, lay them down in a circle and sit in the middle. And there, there, they remember. Alice hates doing this. She never wants to remember again. But this ritual, her brother insisted, was the most important. It communed with the memories, and brought the promises her brother had made into life around them, a burning bright light around them of what could be and what was real.
Tonight was the fourth Friday of the month. It was the time of the paintings, the time for remembering and transcendence. She stood at the barn entrance holding a lantern, the cool orange flickerflicker helping her brother pull the paintings off the wall and slap them flat down on the back of a robotic carriage. He wiped his head and looked at her. Pleading maybe, with his eyes.
That was when she realized that he had his eyes. That her brother had the Master’s eyes. And she wondered then how many of the others had his eyes as well. She didn’t have his eyes, she knew by just a quick glance in the mirror. The Master’s eyes were terrifying things, things that crept into your mind and wouldn’t let go. He could peel back your thoughts with his eyes alone, make you speak things you swore you would never tell another living soul. Her brother had those eyes now. Those eyes.
"You know it’s them at night, right? In the mountains, talking after we sleep. The Master and the others, they’re planning a return to our world through the chalk doors. You know that. Of course you do. Of course you know that. The way they died? Oh. They need to come back and finish this whole thing, they are restless spirits."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah I’m sure. Just listen, okay? I think they’re talking with ghost words. But if you listen, and try and translate it? Then you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s them. I know it. You know it. It’s them."
She didn’t want it to be true.
Painted circles memories eyes staring dead eyes staring. In the middle two bodies. The sky overhead was a different sky. Red sometimes, orange sometimes, ready for rain sometimes. The clouds moved at an impossible rate while the sun rolled across the hills. Everything still, everything holding breath with clamped teeth. Alice hated this ritual more than any other ritual, and she doesn’t want to hate it. But she does.
Eyes closed. She doesn’t want to go back. The automatons sing the song, they sing the necessary things. Gears for voices, springs uncoiling with rust words. The world pulls her back into time and there he is, the Master speaks again. She can’t even see her brother anymore. There are others wearing masks and the Master is yelling something. She doesn’t want to understand it, she fights back understanding. She doesn’t have to do this, she doesn’t have to remember this.
The suicide pact. The instructions for the children, for the survivors. To carry on, to always carry on. The Book of Four Hours passed to them, hand his hand, his hand grubby fat hand. Master’s hand is swollen red thing. He has no eyes anymore, just sockets where eyes should be. In the dark of his holes there are whispers.
Masks move in tandem. The giants are placed underground. The chalk doors close again, no more. You can hear thunder and anger. We won’t last, the Master says. We cannot last. You will pass this on, you will do what we cannot. Without our bodies it is all we can do. Without our skin it is all we can do.
She can’t do it. She forces herself out. Eyes open. Out. Out Out.
Brother said bad things would happen if she stopped the trance.
Brother said bad things would happen if you pushed out the memories.
He was wrong.
"We inherited death. That is all they gave us. Don’t you see? We walk between the rows and we act out what the dead said. We do everything the dead said. And that is it, we have no more life, no more energy. Can’t you see that Gerald? Can’t you?"
Her brother was angry. He did not want to be taken from his trance.
"Do not call me by that name anymore. You are sister and I am brother. We are the only ones left. We are the only ones left!"
The anger was visible. A red cloud around him. His body shaking.
She left, knowing his anger would poison him. He might die if he didn’t let it subside.
Alice doesn’t want to remember the plague years, either. After the brotherhood and sisterhood died and all of that. There were a few years where the offspring was good and had harmony. But then one of the giants turned orange and then blue and then screamed. And his scream entered the childheads and infected so many. It passed on and it passed on and…no. She won’t remember this either. There isn’t even a ritual for this.
It was just death and burying and stick thin bodies burning up. Until only two.
Alice climbed up one of the heads. The stars in the sky moved quick and the mountains in the distance were quiet. It wasn’t yet time for them to wake up and converse but that was all right. She could sit then on top of the head. Maybe read for a bit by the moon. Maybe just think and let everything settle around her…
No. Shadow walked through the heads. No. It was time for solace. No. He moved between the fires that lit the giant skulls. No. He wasn’t allowed to do this. This was her quiet time! He ruined so much already. No.
"You can’t sleep out in the fields tonight by the borderlands. The mountains told me that you might gossip with the giants, and so they told me you can’t do it. You understand me? You can’t do it."
She didn’t slide down or move or anything.
"I said you can’t do it, don’t you understand? I. I am. I am the new Master!"
"No you’re not."
There was a sadness in his whimper response. And then storming off into the shadows. Alice’s heart was fire and drums. She tried to calm down. But hands. They shake. The rattle with bones.
Hours go by and she still was not calm. She still cannot be calm. The mountains were not speaking anymore and she wondered if they would ever speak again. Something must be done. Something needed to be done. She slid off the giant head and looked around at the others. They slept, a few, but their mouths sewn shut and maybe had cages over lips to keep them from biting her and biting her brother. She saw how horrible and broken they’d become. She was not chained to ritual. She was not chained to the ghosts.
Brother slept in the barn with the paintings. She ran over to the gas shack where they kept lantern oil and other things. Things that powered the automatons. She grabbed glass containers, the smelly liquid sloshing around inside. And then she went to the barn. The pictures must go.
Threw the cans shatter in the air and fire crawled over the wood and the planks. Her brother made no sound, not even a scream. Maybe he desired this. Maybe. The automatons woke and went around quick and quicker trying to put out the fires with sprays of water and dirt to smother it all out.
She went, then. She went to the chalk doors and opened them. Behind was the cry of shadows. A sound she heard when there was only silence in the world. It was behind everything else, a constant. A breathing, living, thing.
While the automatons rushed and tried to make the fire a ghost fire she ran to the fields and started to kick at the heads. She screamed in ears and they woke, they woke. She howled the words that broke the iron chains. She ripped off the masks and unplugged them from the medicine sacks. They moved. Pulled bodies out of ground. Grumbling half-awake things. They made sounds like whales in their throats.
And for a moment they stared at her with ragehate eyes and ragehate hearts. Stared, swinging broken chains in their hands. Until one saw the chalk doors and then the others saw the chalk doors. Home in their eyes, home in their hearts. They went towards it, shuffling and falling. Their muscles weak and broken down, but still working as they crawled, shaking the earth with their crawling.
Until they reached the doors. And then they went through like babies going down stairs for the first time. Hesitant, energetic, and full of frightened hope.
Alice cleaned up the last of the fields. Gerard sat on the ground. His face was bandaged up to keep the burn marks safe. He barely spoke to her anymore, and helped out enough to keep them living. Every once in awhile he would muffle some words, but she could tell the burns on his lips hurt so much.
And at night the mountains were quiet. Alice thought she would feel better now. Her memories maybe no longer real things, but instead vague impressions she could push out of her mind. But no. Every time. Every time she looked at Gerard all she could see were his eyes sticking out from behind the bandages. The same eyes. Always those same eyes.
Paul Jessup does not exist.