Where it began
GREAT GRANDFATHER lifted his wrinkled arms to the sky, his face painted in red and blue-black hues that zigzagged across his forehead and cheeks, his mouth and eyes settled into a mask of stern concentration, a look the Old One wore to anyone who dared stare him down. Under the surface of that mask was a dismissive cruel streak that sent shivers into the boy’s spine, vertebrae rattling bone on bone.
Grandpap stood to the right of his powerful father, arms by his sides, eyes upward, looking not at his grandson or Great Grandfather, but at a branch where the pale and watchful crow perched. The boy wanted to run to Grandpap, push his face into his strong chest, and hide his shameful fear. He would not disgrace his ancestors by acting weak, especially in front of The Great One. Weakness was punished, for Great Grandfather believed punishment made the weak strong.
The boy’s mother was to his left, and he dared not look at her face, for her eyes would be full of pleading and terror. She said, “He’s a boy. He’s not ready.”
Great Grandfather answered, “I was a boy. My son was a boy. Leave, then.”
“But he’s different. He’s not like you.” She spoke to Grandpap. “Please? He has my blood, too.”
Grandpap didn’t avert his eyes from the white crow circling, landing, circling, or the other birds, shiny and sleek, who gathered upon the branches of the trees in dark clumps. He offered no sympathy or encouragement. There came no show of the usual love for the boy or usual tenderness for the boy’s mother.
Great Grandfather said, “Our kind ends with him if he fails. Do you want your son to be the last?”
“Maybe I do,” Mother said. “The world’s changed and you’ve not changed with it.”
“Why would I? When the world’s grown weak? When people can’t take care of themselves and must suck the teat of comfort?”
“I don’t want my son to be ostracized as we are.”
Grandpap said, “Enough, Grace. Enough.”
“You won’t stop this?” Mother asked.
Grandpap looked over to the Great One. “No.”
Great Grandfather pointed to the boy. “Look at him. Near twice the size of most boys his age, but shakes like a field mouse cornered by a cat. The blood’s been tainted by your people.”
Mother stood tall, proud. “You infected your own people with your cruelties.”
The boy didn’t flinch under Great Grandfather’s scrutiny, but he feared they’d know his panic in the frantic rushing of his blood through his veins, his ears, behind his eyes. Could they see his bared chest pulse pulse pulse at its center? He said, “Yes, Great Grandfather?”
“Tell this woman to leave you be.”
He turned to the left and did not meet her gaze when he said, “I’m ready, Mother. I’m old enough.” Her anxious breath entered him and lay heavy against his heart—a boy loved his mother, and so he must leave her to be a man.
Grandpap nodded his head and returned his gaze to the crow.
The boy knew the lightning that would come both gave and took away. Since his first awareness of his life, he’d smelled the sizzle, heard the crack of fire, sometimes the screams. The worst time had been with his father, though he had been too little to recall anything except blurry terrifying images that seared his young memory when Father took the lightning and failed. The lightning that gave much had taken away.
His mother had once told him how his father watched over them both. Waited to be released from Great Grandfather. That he, the boy, her son, could be the one to release him, release them all. The boy loved the lightning and he hated it. Much the same as he did his great grandfather. The two were inseparable—the Great One and the Lightning-fire.
There was no turning back. The once-clear sky was already turning dark, and the wind picked up old dead leaves and tossed them about. The boy sniffed the air. He thought of other boys, boys in town. How he’d spied on them as they played—riding their bicycles, rolling through the wind on what he came to know were skateboards, eating foods he’d never tasted, pretending to hate girls—doing all the things he was not allowed to do, had never been allowed to do. It was as if he lived in a time long ago forgotten, while the world beyond moved on.
“Boy! Pay attention!”
“Yes, Great Grandfather.”
The Old One called out to the sky, garbled words that had no need of explanation, no need of syllable and coherent meaning. He raised his hands high, higher, and the cloud above swelled meaner, heavier, as if it would fall to the ground, too bloated with fury to stay hooked to the sky.
A humming, chanting song, the clickityclack of ancestors’ bone against bone.
A flash, blinding heated white. The bolt the old man took jarred his body rigid, the whites of his eyes erasing the brooding dark irises, veins threaded, looped, bulged, up and down his neck, arms, bare feet. Great Grandfather opened his mouth and a harsh exhale escaped like steam from an over-boiled kettle. The low hum grew ever louder. The white crow called—aw-aw-caw aw-aw-caw aw-aw-caw.
Under the boy’s feet the ground trembled, warmed, shifted. The world rearranged into heat, hum, crackling, and steamed breath, clickityclackclickityclackclickityclack—the chanting of the ancients rose up from the ground and into the trees.
Great Grandfather stretched out his hands, fingertips splayed, and threw the lightning-fire to his only son. Bent backward from the force, Grandpap shook and trembled and dug his toes into the dirt. The crow screeched again, lifted from the branch and circled over-head, flying in ever tightening circles. Grandpap turned his brightened eyes to the boy, threw out his hands—
—white searing pain. The boy’s body stiffened. Spine coiled to snap. Blood boiling in veins. Bone marrow as hot lava. Eyes bulging from their sockets, ready to run liquid down his face as thick, sticky tears. Heartbeat, faster, faster, faster. Fingers, toes, top of head, the burning heat spread. Two fingernails ripped from his fingers, fell to the forest floor; the boy rent forth an unholy screech of agony and terror.
From far away, Mother called out, “Stop it! Stop!”
He lifted from the ground, and the soles of his feet caught fire, burning, burning—his screams tore his throat open, and he tasted blood. Dying, the boy thought, I am dying to join my father in the sky.
As swiftly as it had come, the lightning left his body, and he crumpled to the ground.
His mother knelt to him, crying out her sorrow.
Pain and failure enveloped him in a hot-fisted grip.
Great Grandfather turned his rage upon Grandpap. “Why did you make it stop?”
“It was too strong for him. He is not ready.”
The Old One said, “Will there not be another as strong as I am?” He glared at the boy.
Mother wrapped something around the boy’s feet, speaking to him in soft non-sensible murmurs.
Grandpap shook his head. “Do you want to lose the last of us before he can provide another?”
“And you,” Great Grandfather said, “will keep him weak. Why not just send him down to the others? Why not just let him grow up and become one of them? And our people die out, forever.”
Grandpap’s shoulders drooped, and he turned away. He would not again speak back to Great Grandfather. It was to be as it always was.
As the boy lay upon the ground blinking back the stinging in his eyes (no tears no tears no tears allowed), he turned his mind to the girl whose hair blew back in the wind, her smile spread wide, her legs browned in the sun, bird-track freckles across her nose. It calmed him to think of his friend—though she didn’t know of the friendship he wished for. He imagined she came to him, brushed her small hand across his forehead, whispered to him how brave a boy he was, how they would be the best of friends; he would teach her all kinds of things on and about the mountain, and they’d grow up together, forever. He often called to her, even if he wasn’t sure she would hear. Just saying her name made her more real to him. If only she could say his name, then everything would be okay. Everything would make sense to him.
He called to her, soft, “Laura. Laura.”
“What are you whispering, Ayron?” His mother called him by her mountain family name, her father’s, and her father’s father—she’d long lost them. The name was all that was left of them, the name that meant “mountain of strength.” He knew from her stories that her father had been just that, a giant of a man, strong, stubborn. He never knew his mother’s parents, for they’d died when their horse was startled by a flash of lightning, slipped, and sent them plummeting down an embankment.
“Ayron,” she said, “you’ll find your own legacy.”
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