Yacob’s crib-sister was a great one for adventures, so it was she who led them to the Hole. The four children snuck out after lunch when the mommies were settling the wee ones down for their naps and the daddies were cleaning up the kitchen. The clatter of dishes was enough to cover the sound of one squeaky-hinged side door.
Thalie had confessed about the Hole the night before: how she had escaped the watery eye of Daddy Bain and spent the afternoon exploring the dusted ruin of the Stat rather than digging tavaroot out of Rise Common.
It was a miracle she’d not fallen into the Hole, Dellia had said, slapping her hand over her mouth to catch the bad luck. Dellia was a great believer in luck. She had a hundred different ways to keep it close or send it away.
Yacob wasn’t sure how he felt about luck, but as Thalie had talked about the Hole he’d crossed his fingers behind his back. The Stat was full of Holes and they were terrible deep and dark. Thalie had planted her hands on her hips and laughed at her crib-siblings to show how unafraid she was of Holes, or of falling.
“I dropped a stone in,” she’d boasted, arching one almost-invisible brow. “It’s probably still falling.” Thalie had given Min, the youngest of them, a wink. “That Hole goes all the way to the Undertakers.”
“No way.” Eldest of the four, Yacob often found himself firmly planted between Thalie’s nonsense and the others’ wish-wants. “You just didn’t hear it hit bottom.”
“I listened good, Yacob, but it never hit.”
Min had removed his thumb from his mouth long enough to declare, “Thalie’s ever such a good listener, Yacob.”
“Mommy Lala says,” Dellia had agreed.
“The bottom could just be very far away,” Yacob reasoned. “Remember Daddy Journy’s lesson? The Holes go down to the Beneath, and that’s a very long time ago. Not even Thalie could hear that far.”
“Could, too,” Thalie said, thrusting her thin chest at him.
“And there’s no such thing as Undertakers,” Yacob declared.
Somehow that had turned into a dare, so after lunch the four crib-siblings climbed the musil tree in the back garden and dropped to the passageway behind the sharp-hedge. They listened for signs of alarm—the mommies and the daddies had rules about sneaking out –- but the only sound from their nest was Daddy Immi’s burbling laugh from the kitchen.
It was a curving way the children took from their nest half-way up the City’s third hill to the deep-shadowed bowl of the Stat. Anyone who saw a crib of underage children pattering through the streets would ask questions, questions which would get the children sent back to Three-Hill Nest right quick, so Thalie led them through narrow places known to youngsters but conveniently forgotten by the very adults who had once made use of them themselves. It was a goodly long route, too, and by the time the children dipped into the shadows of the sparsely populated low-City the sun was well across the sky.
Then a stone wall loomed, its slumped foundations leaning loosely uphill, revealing a forgotten entry to the forbidden Stat.
One by one the children wriggled through: Thalie first, brave adventurer, then Min, small and lithe, then Dellia, whispering an apology to the Undertakers. Lastly, Yacob, cautious, who had a private moment of terror when he felt stone press down, unforgiving, on his backside.
It was an admonishing hand, that stone, like the stern rebuke of a daddy. Yacob exhaled and pressed forward. The stone relented but took payment in a small smear of scraped skin. Yacob emerged into the Stat, and the Crack, the great Hole in the heart of the City, gaped at them hollowly from behind its ragged crenellations of fencing.
“Is that where the Undertakers live?” Min asked.
“Over here,” Thalie said, skittering over the heaved floor of the Stat. Quake grass grew gravely green between ancient paving slabs, questing for the sparse sun that crested the bowl of the Stat for only a few short hours each day. Seed heads popped as the children brushed by on soft-moccasined feet. The wavering silver of seed-wings followed their eddied passage.
“What was this place, Yacob?” Min said, voice barely a whisper.
Yacob felt very small in the huge space and Min was smallest of them all. “No one remembers,” he said.
Min hopped from one paving stone to the next. “There must be many Undertakers, if they need a nest this big,” he said.
“Maybe they’re giants,” Dellia said.
“Slowly now,” Thalie said. The children knew the danger of the ever-opening and quickly closed Holes of the City. They had seen safety nets go up, springing from the ground like whiteclusters after rain. Last summer, a Hole had opened right in front of Three-Hill Nest, and the crib-siblings had spent an afternoon watching Fillers pour wagonloads of dirt-brown forget into a Hole no larger than a loaf of black bread. All through the process, in spite of the web-strong net put in place by the Finders, Mommy Lala had held the youngest children with white-knuckled hands.
That day, once the Hole had been filled Thalie had planted her sharp chin squarely on Yacob’s bird-bone shoulder. “Did you hear the voices?” she’d asked. Yacob had pretended not to understand her. Later, he had thought to himself: not voices, no. Not like the mommies and the daddies. Not like the chirruping of carefree children. No.
The voices he had heard were curdled and troubled. Something struggling to be heard, and though all the City dwellers knew of it, no one breathed a word.
The Stat lay deep in the City’s memory and the Crack, its crenellated fencing like grinning teeth, had seen more than its share of Fillers. Much of Five-Hill-That-Was-Gone had been poured into its muttering, yet still the Crack whispered. Finally, the people had ceded the Stat and walled it in with the stones of its ancient foundations. Its great gate opened only twice a year, in spring and again in the fall when the Storians came. No City dwellers went to the Stat, not ever, except for Thalie on the day she was meant to dig tavaroot from Rise Common, and today, bringing her crib-siblings on a dare.
“Will the Storians be mad to see us here?” Min asked. He was grubby all over except for his thumb, which was sucked spotless but had left a ring of brown sludge on his lips.
“They won’t be here for months yet,” Yacob said.
“What do they do when they come?” Min asked.
“They look into the Crack,” Yacob said, “and then they leave.” But it was more than that. When the Storians came, the City dwellers clutched warding candles in tight fists, the bright flames guarding against the memory that greenly shadowed the Storians’ garments. And when the Storians left, more Holes opened than at any other time of the year until it seemed the Finders and Fillers would never be enough to bury the past.
“And where do they come from?” Min wanted to know. “Where do they go?”
“Nowhere,” Dellia answered. To the one side of the City was the sea, to the other, the mountains. What lay beyond that could not be imagined.
“Is it true a Sixth-Hill daddy left with them, Yacob? Is it?”
“Shush,” Dellia said, placing her hand across Min’s mouth.
“I’ll be old enough next time they come,” Thalie said loudly. “I’ll meet them at the gate. I’ll ask them where they come from and where they go. I’ll ask them why they visit the Stat.”
“You won’t,” Yacob said, remembering the dry curl of his tongue when he first saw them go by, near enough to touch and yet untouchable. The Storians made the mouth heavy, as if words carried greater meaning than usual when they were present.
“I’ll follow them, then,” Thalie said. “I’ll see what they do and then I’ll follow them all the way to the sea.”
“Thalie!” Dellia said.
“And beyond,” Thalie finished, but Yacob noted how thin her voice was, for Thalie, like all of them, had never given thought to leaving the City. Yacob saw her considering it now. His heart constricted suddenly and he felt cold and hot at once.
“Here,” Thalie whispered, ducking to her knees and scrambling forward. Yacob’s hands flew out to Min on the right and Dellia on the left. “Slowly,” he cautioned, and crouched down as an example. Only when he saw his crib-siblings do the same did he follow Thalie.
The Hole was a gape-mouthed darkness. It had opened at the base of an old cornerstone, the building it had supported long since broken to build the Stat’s protective wall. Yacob suspected the cornerstone was, in fact, straddling the Hole and that the opening was much larger than they could see. Thalie grinned triumphantly.
“The Finders didn’t come!” she crowed. “No one knows about this Hole but us!”
It was a heady feeling. Yacob belly-crawled to Thalie, genitalia constricted in a kind of fear-pleasure he’d never felt before. The Hole was ink-black and hushed, as if it had been waiting.
“Throw a stone down, Thalie!” said Min, who never forgot a dare. He gave a stone the size of his fist to his crib-sister and she took it, wriggling forward until her head was over the Hole. “Well?” she demanded of Yacob. He slithered forward, too, his body pressed against the grey shadowed earth and his face exposed to darkness. “Ready?” she said.
“Ready.” Yacob inhaled the odd salt tang of the Hole. Thalie held her stone-wielding fist high and then, fingers splaying out like the light from a suddenly opened lantern, she let go. The stone disappeared into silence, and the crib-siblings held their breath.
And held it a long time, straining for any sound at all, even a clatter that would say the stone had hit something and then tumbled farther still. Nothing. It was as if it had ceased to exist.
Dellia had been counting. She kept past thirty, on to forty, and when the count reached one hundred Thalie said in a whisper, “Well?”
“How far away is Beneath?” Min asked, as if memory were a distance that could be measured by anything so small as children.
“Shh,” Yacob said, one finger held up like Daddy Immi’s when he wanted their attention.
Thalie turned her head just so, her eyes a dark glint in her face. She heard it, too. Not the stone landing. Not the thud and bump and echo they expected. The sound was a deep rolling and a shush, like thunder pounding the mountains in spring but with a great, ponderous intention.
Thalie’s eyebrows rose with the pleasure of discovery.
“I don’t like it,” Dellia said. She backed away, catching hold of Min’s hand-me-down shirt and tugging him with her.
Yacob listened, eyes on Thalie’s rapt attention. The sound poured upward, taking form, becoming something like words, expressions and sentences clumped together. Yacob heard meaning, heard rounded vowels and plosives bouncing toward them. Thalie dipped her head further, hair falling down on either side of her face, one arm slipped into the Hole as if she could grab the sense of it and pull it into daylight.
“It’s rising!” Min squeaked. Dellia had pulled him well away. He stumbled, shirt tangled in Dellia’s fingers, yearning for Yacob and Thalie.
Min’s fear lapped against Yacob, found repeat in the hammering of his heart. “We’re not meant to be here,” he said, wrapping his fingers around Thalie’s upper arm. “We’re not meant to know.”
“Yacob,” Thalie said, squeezing his fingers with her own, “won’t you listen to the story?” And as she said it, Yacob’s ears were opened and the sounds from the Hole did became words, as if all the daddies and all the mommies in all the City were speaking to him at once. The voices swept into him then, and he was forever and after other than what he had been before.
The rains came, lashed the City with dark water that froze into bejewelled puddles lasting well past mid-winter. The mommies of Three-Hill Nest dressed the children in boiled wool coats with scarves past their noses and hats low over their eyes. Then the daddies took them to Bonfire, letting them stay up long after moonsfall to watch the wishlamps soar from the summit of Old One Hill.
Yacob held Min’s thin hand. “Which lamp have you chosen?” he asked, but Min was searching the crowd for Thalie and was not interested in setting his wishes free for the turn of the year.
“Which lamp is yours?” Dellia asked Yacob. Her face had grown sere and solemn since the Stat. Yacob could see the adult she would become, as if her child face was shallowing and her woman face rising toward the world she would inhabit.
There was no lamp in the sky big enough for Yacob’s wishes, but he told Dellia he’d chosen the red one flying lowly toward them even now. Dellia pointed at a yellow lamp which sailed unerringly for the sea and declared it for herself. Then Dellia reminded Yacob of last year, when Yacob’s wishlamp had become entangled in the many spires of Seeming Tower and had sent hot ashes tumbling into the gutters and onto the street.
“We should choose one for Thalie,” Dellia said. Thalie, who was absent. Thalie, who was gone from them so often that they hardly knew her scent. Thalie, who always found her way back into the Stat, no matter how often its wall was repaired.
The crib-siblings searched the sky. Around them, City dwellers chose their lamps and said their wishes. The wishlamps moved like somnolences, fluttering against one another, drifting seaward or up to the mountains.
“There,” Min said. It took Yacob a moment to see what Min saw. There it was, Thalie’s wishlamp, drifting purposefully toward the mountains over the deep hollow of the Stat.
“I wish...” Dellia began, but Yacob shushed her.
“It’s Thalie’s,” he said.
Dellia’s own lamp crested the wall, kissed the heavy sea and burst into a shadow of flame. Yacob’s landed at the feet of some merchants who laughingly stomped it out before the flames could catch the wooden walls of the Runestall. But Min, Dellia, and Yacob watched Thalie’s lantern, Thalie’s wishes, skim the roofs of the City and disappear into the west.
Night had almost given way to day when Thalie crept cold-footed into bed. She wriggled against Yacob, bringing with her the dry-stone smell of the Stat and the salted, crusted scent of the Hole. Yacob, drifting near slumber, curled into her, shared with her his warmth and the sting of wood smoke.
Then, when Min’s breathing relaxed and Dellia’s soft sounds returned, Thalie pressed her lips to the delicate arch of Yacob’s ear and spoke. Her voice sparked in him, and it was hard to tell which part of the story came from Thalie and which part of it came from the Hole. It was as if the words from the Hole were reaching out through Thalie and finding Yacob’s heart.
One day, in the back garden of Three-Hill Nest, a new Hole appeared at the base of the musil tree.
Yacob pressed his ear against it. The sound rose to him easily, effortlessly, as though the Beneath had been waiting for him.
...their fear was great and it fuelled their anger; anger can accomplish many great and terrible things.
How old was this tale? How old any of them? And how long had people lived in the City, forgetting, forgotten, having forgotten everything they’d ever known?
When the Lawless reached the edge of Sayaman, City of Fountains, their numbers had swelled to 50 000 warriors. They came over the mountains riding beasts that did not feel the cold. We believed Eternal Sayaman could not fall, and we laughed when they demanded we submit.
Yacob, eyes closed, did not hear the Finders until their hands were upon him, dragging him from the Hole and the musil tree with hooted admonishments. Daddy Immi came and draped his own robe over Yacob’s shoulders as a sign of his minority. The Finders subsided, bowed heads showing the proper respect owed a daddy, and Yacob was led inside. There, the mommies boiled milk for him as if he were still in wet-pants. The Finders raised their net and went for the Fillers.
Another day, Yacob visited the library after lessons. He pulled maps from the shelves and studied them, but all they showed was the City, its walls, a dark-grey edging which was the sea and a stone-black smudging which was the mountains. When he asked Daddy Emman for a map which showed more, Daddy Emman did not understand. When Yacob asked what Sayaman was, Daddy Emman said he did not know the word.
“We’ve forgotten,” Thalie told him. Her black eyes had gone deep with meaning. “We don’t want to remember.”
“What don’t we want to remember?” Yacob said. A late winter storm had shut them inside for the day. Thalie fretted and batted at the windows as if she could not bear the warmth and safety of the nest.
“Something terrible,” Thalie said, her fingers tap-tapping at the glass as if she was sending someone a message.
One night, Thalie did not return from the Stat, nor all the next day, neither. Yacob, Dellia, and Min said that Thalie had gone early to dig tavaroot from the common. Mommy Lala praised Thalie’s effort and sent the crib siblings away with extra sweets to share. Yacob, hot with guilt, dumped his portion down the convenience.
It was a long time before Min and Dellia fell asleep that second night. Yacob lay awake and fretting. When Thalie came in at last her hands were shaking and no amount of coddling could comfort her. She pressed needfully against Yacob until at last Min and Dellia moved to the bottom of the crib. Thalie pulled Yacob to her, held his hands to the bony curve of her hips, and wrapped her legs around him. Yacob moved wonderingly, waiting for her lips to touch his ear, waiting for her to tell him the end of the story. But all Thalie had for him was silence and a warm wetness he had not known would be there.
The sun announced the equinox with a banishing of rain clouds and the City responded with a burst of new growth. On the night of the first new moon, word came at last that the Storians were returning. The gate of the Stat was opened, and the scent of the sea crept through the stone ways and alleys.
The daddies of Three-Hill Nest led the elder crib-siblings to the west wall, where they clutched their ward candles in hands not-yet-confident. Thalie the adventurer, so unlike, hung back and Yacob had to urge her to hurry. Her first time seeing the Storians, he soothed, it was not so frightening. Green shadows, they were, who took no notice of almost-growns like them. Thalie accepted his hand and he brought it to his face, inhaling the Thalie-scent which had returned when she stopped visiting the Stat.
His heart filled with her: crib-sister, companion, friend, and lover. He had made plans, Yacob had. His age-coming would arrive when the alva fruit was ripe, Thalie’s soon after. Three-Hill Nest had healthy broods; there was a good chance Yacob and Thalie could parent. They would build a new story to replace the one that haunted Thalie’s sleep.
Yacob had fooled himself into believing the deep of Thalie’s eyes was love.
They lit their ward candles and lined the road between the west wall and the Stat. The Storians were coming, their feet heavy with distance. Yacob remembered a word Thalie’s Hole had taught them, a word barely understood, lost in time and history and forgetting. It was a word so close to ‘Storian’ that Yacob put his lips to Thalie’s ear and breathed it like a love token. Thalie startled, flicked an expression at Yacob that was like a discovery, and put her lips to the skin of his neck. And so they were standing when the first of the Storians came around the corner: Thalie’s eyes closed tightly as if she were clinging to something. Yacob, heart-full, imagined the two of them in a nest of their own.
Thalie pressed something into his hand and the Storians were gone. Then Thalie pulled away, twisting in the Storians’ wake as if reaching forward and back at the same time. And she was gone, her ward-candle dripping wax into Yacob’s palm and lifting a curl of smoke from its extinguished wick. Yacob cried out, flinging himself into the trail of the Storians, but Daddy Bain took him around the waist, Daddy Emmer caught him around the neck, and they held him while the Storians took Thalie in a green-shadowed blur.
When the alva fruit was ripe, Yacob came of age. He took a small nest at the bottom of Three Hill. Daddy Immi visited when the fall equinox came, bringing sweets made especially by Mommy Ahh. Yacob knew they were worried he’d stand ward when the Storians came again and disappear like Thalie and so many others had, but he, Yacob, did not yet have the words the Storians wanted. Instead, he shut the windows and tried to imagine an ending for Thalie’s story. At Bonfire, Yacob stood with Dellia and Min. They chose their lamps and made their wishes and Min talked about the new sibling who would soon be joining the crib.
Dellia came of age prior to spring equinox. She came to Yacob and took him for her own and although they tried they could not parent. It happened that way more often than not; there were always more empty nests in the City than full. Dellia fell silent in her ways and Yacob watched for Holes in the street as diligently as if he were a Finder, searching for fragments of memory to explain the scarcity of children, the why of having forgotten.
It was many seasons, however, before a Hole opened and Yacob found it before the Finders. It was right at the door of their nest, as if it were meant for him. Yacob crouched and pressed his ear to the new-cracked stone which had been worn concave by thousands of feet over thousands of years.
The story rose, never fully forgotten no matter how far Beneath it was buried. It bubbled through deep caverns carved by the sea, leeched upward year after year. It rose to the surface, told itself to any who would listen, turned its listeners into storytellers. Like Thalie. Like the Storians themselves, people who were not lost, as Yacob had been taught, but found.
Anchored to the past, reaching for the future.
Yacob closed his eyes, sifting through the voices, listening for the one whose story had been added.
We promised the future we would remember, but the Storians knew we would forget. We had to. Our shame had lit the sky, sealed the wombs of women and twisted the seed of men. The world was so changed that we bound the horror of it Beneath and whenever a scrap of memory reached up we slapped it down in fear and loathing. But a time is coming, Yacob, a time when the weight of history will burst free, turning all of us into storytellers.
Soon, Yacob. Soon. The City is older than we can imagine, and the Beneath is full to bursting.
Dellia pulled Yacob from the Hole. The Finders were coming with their nets and their fear. Dellia took Yacob inside their nest, closed the door, and wiped the tears from his eyes with feather-light fingers. They listened for the Filler wagon, the scoop of the brown forgetting, and the scrape of new stone being laid.
“It’s not enough,” Yacob whispered. “The story finds the cracks that run through everything.”
Yacob arranged words of his own to add to the story of the City. In the fall, the Storians would come up from the sea yet again, their rememberings a green weight clinging to their robes. Through the City they would go, unseeing, as if the great stone edifices were meaningless. One by one they would dip their heads over the Crack and listen to the tumbling and lumbering of what had been forgotten. Then, they would add the new stories they had uncovered, filling the last few spaces of the Beneath.
At last, they would carry their stories on and out into the wakening world.
In the City, Holes opened more often and the Finders were too few. Holes lost in corners and unmarked alleys whispered their stories on the wind. Once in a while, the words found ears willing to listen and lips willing to tell.
And in their small nest at the bottom of Three-Hill, Yacob burrowed into Dellia’s warmth, pressed his mouth against the fine arch of her ear, and began to speak.