We Ought Never To Have Done It:Part Nine
V. Two Hundred Years Ago - The Place Where Nobody Goes
In the clearing, there stands a stone.
The stone has stood for millennia hence and will stand for millennia more. The village rests at the base of the hill, and the stone rests at the top, a Clearing where Nobody Goes and where Nobody Shall Go. The reasoning is lost to time, but it is known to all that the stone marks a place that is off-limits to pets, a place that belongs to the Old Ones, the ones who inhabited Neopia before pet. They have been reduced to the far corners of the world, to the places of forest and swamp and deep water. But it is their land still, and they will brook no invasion. And so the stone is placed to ward off the invader, and the elders hold to these laws. The stone stands for millennia. It warns of the danger. It is the little marker, the rock amongst the towering pines. It is sovereign.
Such are the thoughts of Hezekiah as he lays fitfully beneath his thatch roof. He is a Kougra, yellow, and he is of the age where natural rebellion rears its ugly head and tempts all young pets into disobeying the sensible laws of their elders. His nights are tormented by wild, feverish dreams of visiting the port of Centralia, of commingling with pets from all across the globe. The Elders forbid this, preaching the virtues of remaining an isolated community, dedicated to the protection of the hills, the pine forests, the things that rest in the untouched areas of the world. Hezekiah does not heed these pleas.
Outside his hut, the fire crackles. It burns all night, to ward off the things in the forest. Jolephtha says he saw a Thing once, but no one else has seen a Thing in over a hundred years, not since the last one came to the village and destroyed every fifth hut. Now, the Things are just legends the Elders tell to frighten the babes into staying. Hezekiah listens to the fire and hears it, but he doesn’t hear the snarl of the Things in the woods, and he doesn’t see their claws like he used to in the shadows of the fire when his mother and aunts used to tell stories. He has stopped believing in the Things.
"They are faerie tales," he says to the thatch roof. "They are not real. They scare the children, and they are not real."
And still Hezekiah cannot sleep. He watches the flames dance across his roof, and he thinks, and he curses Jolephtha for tending the fire even though he’s a year older than Hezekiah and cannot still believe in the Things.
Hezekiah rises from his straw mattress and pads over to the door, and he opens it just a crack, just to see what he can see from the crack in his door. He knows what he will see if he opens it all the way; the hut of Elezra is there, and the hut of Jolephtha’s mother, and between the two, he can see the forest. The fire is off to the right, where it illuminates the window. All this he can see from the door. But from the crack -- from the crack, the world is different. The world is smaller from the crack, and it is more focused.
Hezekiah puts his eye to the crack, and he sees just the forest. The huts to either side disappear, and what is left are three distinct trees, their bark shimmering orange and black. Beyond them, faint vertical lines mark other trees, but Hezekiah cannot see them as clearly and so they do not exist. Only those three trees exist right now, and Hezekiah stares at them; he stares at them until he thinks their bark should shed from the trunk due to the force of his glare. If Things were to come out, they would come out there, and he would see them, and they would be kept at bay only by the light of the fire. They would bare their teeth and gnash and claw at the bark, and they would howl that they could not reach their prey; that was the way of the old stories that Hezekiah’s mother and aunts used to tell. But Hezekiah did not see the Things.
He throws open the door and strides out into the fire-lit clearing. Jolephtha is the only one still awake, and he immediately leaps to his paws, spear at the ready. "Halt, you! Friend or fiend?" he cries.
"Ho, Jolephtha," Hezekiah retorts, and the spear is readily lowered.
"Hezekiah, it is you. I thought you a Thing. You should not move about so in the nighttime, it is unwise." Jolephtha lays his spear back again at his feet, and resumes his place by the fireside.
"I could not sleep," Hezekiah replies, truthfully. "I only wander so as to set my mind at rest. It is said by the Elders that a walk may settle many questions upon the mind, not the least of which is that which most troubles you."
"Quite true," mumbles Jolephtha. "Quite true. What troubles you most, Hezekiah? Is it your age ceremony? You are to be eighteen soon, and that brings with it its own burden! You will soon be walking the forest and keeping the rest of the village safe. Surely you fear the Things as much as anyone."
Hezekiah throws a stick in the fire and avoids the question. He shuffles his paws. "You believe in the Things, Jolephtha?"
"Ha!" Jolephtha barks. "A funny question, Hezekiah! Is this a part of your trial? Are you sent to question youths in the village? Everybody believes in the Things, and you know that I myself have seen them, the most recent of anyone in the village, but Elezra."
"I...see. I think I may walk along the forest tonight. Is there a torch I may borrow, Jolephtha?"
Jolephtha reaches into the fire and withdraws a long, fiery branch. "You are brave, Hezekiah. Even I do not dare to walk the perimeter at night. If I did not know better, I would have said you wished my job as fire-tender!"
Hezekiah chuckles and stands up. "No, no, Jolephtha. You can keep your job. I simply...want to know more."
Jolephtha returns his attention to the fire. "A worthy goal, brother. A thing we should all strive for. Go, the edge of the forest has much to warn you of. May you return with omens upon your lips."
Hezekiah leaves the fireside and walks carefully between Elezra’s hut and the hut of Jolephtha’s mother, making sure not to bring his torch too close to the thatch. He clears the perimeter of the village and slowly makes his way out to the dark forest edge, where the three trees have multiplied into three dozen, and more beyond. This is the furthest any young pet from the village is allowed to go unescorted; even with an Elder, the furthest possible point is still within eyesight. Past the tree line, there exists a small line of rocks, perhaps thirty feet from the village. That is the line that, when followed along the forest, meets the stone in the clearing at exactly the middle. The stone is what describes the boundary of the things. The stone is what sets the rules of the village.
Hezekiah walks along the forest edge in the direction of the stone.
So much is set by the stone. All daily life is in obedience to the laws of the stone; rations are portioned, boundaries are limited, curfews are set all according to what the stone dictates as the balance between pet and Thing. And for what? So that pets can be forced to sleep before sundown? So that pets can be afraid to wander beyond the miniscule enclosure that is the village? So that the Elders can lord power above everyone else? The stone is ancient and decrepit and old, and Hezekiah has yet to see any indication that the stone has meaning beyond what Jolephtha claims to have seen and what Elezra dictates on Sundays.
The stone looms in the distance; Hezekiah does not know how much time has passed since he left the village, but the sky remains black. No one guards the stone. It is taken as a given that no one would dare to approach the stone without explicit permission of the elders, so the stone does not need protection; it is given from on high. Hezekiah approaches without issue.
It is a small stone, not knee-height and as round as a small bucket with which you might take water. There are no runes carved into its surface. The only special thing about it is that it sits in the middle of a clearing that is otherwise clear of stones and other debris. It is, as the Elders say, a cornerstone of the boundary marking that keeps the things inside their home.
Hezekiah nudges it with his foot. The stone rocks in its earthen bed. He pushes it, harder this time. The stone rolls up, over the lip of its bedding and, when Hezekiah removes his foot, rests on the edge of the hole it previously occupied.
"Hah…." Hezekiah breathes. "It moves."
He pushes it again, rolling it over itself, a full foot away from its previous resting place. He holds his breath and looks up to the stars, waving the torch around him in a wide circle. He listens for shrill cries. He closes his eyes and doesn’t almost pray for fangs to gobble him up where he stands.
When he opens his eyes, the stone still sits away from its indent. A small smile curls Hezekiah’s lips. "It’s nothing." He kicks the stone even further away. "It’s nothing!" he shouts.
No roar echoes from the forest. No fault rips through the earth and swallows him where he stands. The stone simply sits a few feet from the crevice in which it has rested for hundreds of years. "It’s nothing."
Hezekiah drags his toes along the rock for a few more seconds and then turns his torch back towards the village. He is determined to tell the rest of the villagers that he has moved the stone and that nothing has come as a result of it.
He never reaches the village. Hezekiah is never again seen in the village as himself. He is lost to the Things.
To be continued…