A Short Story
A hilltop in the centre of the town which sat within a deep valley of impassible blades of rock. Upon its table-flat peak, were equally arranged 12 chairs and upon each chair sat a god. With exact regularity, twenty-four times a day, the gods would rise, turn to their right and bow to the next god, then each god would step to the right, bow to the 13th chair at the centre of the circle and sit in the next chair along. Stand. Turn. Bow. Step. Bow. Sit. Regular, even, predictable, unchanging. Stand-turn-bow-step -bow-sit, stand -turn-step-bow-sit, stand-turn-bow-step- bow-sit. So passed the day, 12 times round, stand-turn-bow–step-bow-sit. So passed the night, 12 times; stand-turn- bow-step -bow-sit.
Twenty-four times a day without fail, without variance, without delay, stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit. Twenty-four flights of wide stone steps wound up the hill from the town below, twenty-four turns of sixty steps each. The hill was tall but you could always see at least one god stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit in their regularity for the gods were large and wore robes of deep red. Wherever one stood in the town, one could see at least one god stand-turn- bow-step-bow-sit, when the time came so you would know to lay down whatever you were doing and leave it, for the time for that task, had passed and it was time for the next task.
Before the gods had come, this town was a different place. It was sung that the world had fallen into darkness and disaster that almost all the people on it had fallen to savagery and war. A great chaos and Great War had left few people remaining. It was told that the survivors of the chaos had found their way here and built this town, thinking themselves safe, but monsters had come, demons and twisted men to take what little they had remaining. They had fought, defended, and hidden here in the dark.
The people of the town knew nothing of the outside world though; they lived in their valley and lived by their hill and their gods. No-one dared venture out into the wasteland beyond the walls of this green and fertile valley, for there was death, the elders said. There was no order, no gods, to be found.
It was also told – not written, writing took too long and was a wasteful activity when one man could speak to another man, one woman another and communicate their message without first one having to compose their missive and take time, then another receive it, read it and compose their reply, what a wasteful foolishness. One could talk and tell tales of the other times while eating or relaxing at the end of a day’s work before bed, no need for one to write when one had a mouth and there was no-one outside of this valley anyway – that people used to waste time and had no disciple. They would do nothing all day and pay no attention to the passage of time, they had no gods or not real ones they could see at least, or they would waste time, spending all day on one activity and not pausing each time the gods stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit to leave that task for ended then turn and start the new as seems sensible.
They were fat and lazy and would then, after too long in their sloth, rush around like flies trying to get everything done in the turns which remained. Of course, they never got anything done right! Therefore, in this disorder and constant stress and rushing, they were always angry and so had wasteful wars, which ended their wasteful world. In addition, they, the darker stories told, are the ones who wait without in the darkness.
It was said the gods came to the hill to protect the town and the refugees of the fallen wasteful world, although it was never said where they came from, no-one seemed to care as long as they were there, protecting, in their stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit rhythm. The gods never spoke and no-one seemed to know where the Rules came from, though everyone followed them because they worked. The Rules were not written anywhere, the gods never proclaimed them – for the gods never spoke, just repeated their stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit rhythm – and none recalled ever being taught them, everyone just knew. The best defence is order. As the gods would stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit you start your task and when they next stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit you stop and begin your next. If you did not complete your task in that turn of the gods, you waited until the same turn the next day to carry on with it. A full cycle was the full twenty-four turns so if someone were to order a table and was told it would take three cycles, they knew it would take three cycles to arrive guaranteed, it was hardly complex it simply required efficiency and discipline.
The system worked. The Rules made sure no time was wasted and made the people of the town very efficient at their daily tasks because their lives, governed by their silent gods were all about efficiency and good use of time. It was considered right and it was considered proper to not waste more turns on a task if it could be avoided. If was wasteful and everyone knew where wasteful led to.
The town was quiet and industrious, everyone knew their tasks, got on with their lives and followed the Rules and learned to specialise so well in their field so they could effectively do things as alloted without stress. No-one rushed, that was wasteful and led to disorder. Everyone make sure they did things right because, if you did it badly, that was wasteful because you have to do it all over again in another turn. So, not only do you waste one turn but you waste two! This is what led to the world to fall and order is the only protection from darkness. Therefore, everyone did their work well; bakers baked and made sweet treats, builders built, housewives housewived, everything in its place. It was all ordered, it was all right.
Stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit went the rhythm stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit, start your task, stand-turn- bow-step-bow-sit, end your task.
At night, the sickly sun would set but the townsfolk would not stop, they would continue and, with an instinct seemingly built in, turn their heads to watch the gods stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit before going indoors or home to eat. They would then follow their tasks until the last stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit of the day signalled sleep. Of course, after the sun went down one had to still see the gods stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit and for this thirteen fires were lit on the hilltop. Children were chosen for this very important task for the night has the most terrors, needs the greatest protection; all must see the gods when darkness descends.
Those considered dangerous said there were voices out there, human voices. The same ones, those sensibly considered insane by all decent people, said the screams were human too; outside their safe valley, there was nothing but emptiness and death, they said to anyone who would listen. Which was no-one, of course.
As light failed, a child would arrive at the top step to wait. As the gods stand- turn-bow-step-bow-sit he will enter the circle of their chairs and light each fire, leave fresh fuel and matches and return to the first step. Counting in their head a fraction of a turn, they descend each of the sixty steps, count, step, count, step. As they reach the sixtieth – stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit go the gods – and they count again. Count-step-count-step sixty counts and sixty steps and stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit.
As they descend, as the sun rises, they will meet along the way she who is to light the flames for that next night, count-step-count-step stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit. Up a child goes to light the night’s fires, down comes the child who lit them last, one ascending, one descending always. Count-step-count-step sixty counts per flight, stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit for the next flight, twenty-four flights and twenty-four turns. The fires are always lit afresh each night as the fuel was exhausted when day dawned. This is important; the night fires must never go out.
There is a thirteenth chair inside the circle of twelve. The figure in this chair does not stand-turn-bow- step-bow-sit, it does not move at all. It is silent, as are the other gods but it looks like a statue. Only the wind moving its robe, a darker greyish brown, .shows it is not of stone. No-one knows who this is. It sits, this figure, always facing out but as faceless in the deeply hooded robes as the gods are. The children who ascend light the fire at its feet and leave fuel and matches beside its seat but it acknowledges them not.
A child has sometimes reported god number eleven nodded its hood at them or god number five made a sound but no-one knows for sure. No-one says anything about the thirteenth. The children whisper that they are afraid of it, the air feels colder where it sits, they saw ice on its seat, at its feet. They say it is scary and they dare not look into the emptiness of its cowl. No adults ascend to where the gods stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit as this is forbidden so such stories are dismissed as the imagination of children.
There are nights when the turns of darkness are longer, the air colder, the stars strange, that strange stories are told in huddled groups in warm kitchens. People hear things in the darkness beyond the valley that they try their best to ignore . Strange and frightening noises, noises one cannot describe. No-one knows what these noises are for no-one leaves the town, the valley, and the hilltop to investigate; at least none that might have returned. Many mutter that they have no wish to know what the noises are, if it is not of the valley then it cannot be good. Were it good, would not the valley and the gods welcome it inside?
Then, no refugees, no-one from outside the valley had entered the valley in the time of any currently alive, not the eldest of the elders had heard of such a thing. What is outside of the valley should remain there! They cry and mutter, shaking their grey heads. We do not want anything from outside in here. The outside is where everything went bad, before we had our gods, before we had order.
One these strange nights, the girl or the boy who lit the fires at nightfall are sometimes heard to mutter, once they return down the steps the next night, of strange things above. The child who they meet on the way down (that child’s way up) have spoken of how pale and afraid the descending child looks, how they met not their eyes, extended no gesture of greeting. Speech is forbidden on the steps to the hilltop. No-one knows who forbids it or why; it simply is the Rules. Among the children – for adults are quick to shush and reprimand the child who attempts to speak of their sacred duty – there is hushed and whispered talk of strange things indeed on that darkest and longest of nights. Some, in hushed and hidden groups, claim that they say the thirteenth move.
The gods have completed their rhythm of stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit to signal work is ended, the mothers or fathers are preparing the night meal, the children are, as children are wont, playing in the yard. Talking in whispered voices, giggles or exclamations quickly hushed by the others, a group often sits behind a storage shed. A bold child with dark hair, pale skin, one known for boisterous play, occasionally earning sharp rebuke from an adult, holds his court. In an exaggerated whisper, he tells of his ascent and descent 2 cycles gone, for his duty fell upon the last long night.
He had climbed count-step, count-step up the flights. Sixty steps, count-step, sixty more, it is such a long and far way! Thank the gods and Mum & Dad for the thick robes of the fire-lighter.
He has a future as a story-teller, this boy.
Count-step, count-step, sixty more. On and on until the last count-step, count-step and the gods above made their last stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit as the boy entered the circle to fulfil his sacred duty. The gods were seated, unmoving and silent, the wind fluttering their robes. Each facing outward, hands (if hands there were in those voluminous sleeves) on knees (or where knees might be). The thirteenth more silent and still he seemed. The stone by his feet was cold, as cold as the wood was arranged in the metal bowl, so cold that the matches in his shaking fingers would not light, and a whiff of wind would keep catching them and extinguishing them. He was counting in his head or trying to but the numbers were getting muddled. He knew he had little time left!
The fires must keep burning, night after night and especially on the night when the long dark came. The noises from beyond the valley never came close enough to see what was making them but no-one wished to know. They shuttered their windows, locked their doors tight and tried to sleep, tried to block out and ignore the cacophony. This night it seemed louder than before, more intense, more excited
By his count, the gods were very close to their last stand-turn–bow-step-bow-sit before he should leave and begin his descent. He has the fires of the twelve gods lit but he could not get the thirteenth’s to catch. All around the howls and the screams and the strange noises were getting worse and louder. He saw trees moving in a wind, which was not there. Of course, all of this was not making his task any easier! Cold numbs fingers, shaking, strike the match, it flares! A whiff of wind and it goes out…The twelve gods sat on impassively and did nothing. They were not moving … yet.
Those same scandalously insane individuals to whom nobody listened said that humanity came to this place twenty generations ago. A great ship which sailed the sky had brought them here, it was said. That ship had crashed and blown up but had contained what was called a Beacon. This beacon was sort of a radio which people could hear from a long way off and, well They had heard it and come to investigate.
Back then the gods were unknown to the people, the town not yet built, the valley not yet found. It is said that they found the valley by pure chance one day, fleeing from Them like their lives depended on it. Their lives really did depend on it as it as it happened. Only half those who were fleeing made it into the valley where the gods were waiting. It is said that the flying machines of Them fell from the sky and smashed in flames onto the floor of the valley, killing the horrid occupants instantly. That was the last time one of Their feet touched the soil of the valley.
None the gods forbade could enter.
Once, they said, a great bird of metal had come close to the edge of the valley; a great giant of a bird like none seen before, all fire and light. It had hovered, screaming like a menacing beast in the air before vanishing into the mountains. People had whispered about dragons before lowering both their heads and voices. Watching the gods impassively stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit… stand-turn-bow- step- bow-sit and begin their next task.
They allowed no dragons in the valley either.
All around the town people wrapped themselves more firmly in blankets and tried not to look at their windows or even get out of bed. They must trust in the gods and not waste time, worrying was a waste of time, the Rules said, though no-one knew where or why it said that but the Rules were the Rules and the Rules kept them safe, just like the gods did. The noises would go away, the day would come and none of this would worry anyone. It sounded awfully close and loud though … sounded awfully, well, awfully human and like words…
Cursing was not allowed or encouraged, the Rules again but no-one was watching as the boy started to run out of both matches and time. The Rules don’t count if no-one is … the thirteenth was not looking outward impassively as he had been earlier, sleeves where arms should be folded in its lap. The thirteenth was looking straight at the boy. Or at least the darkness inside his hood was, for there was no face. He heard a shuffle somewhere and tore his gaze away from that shadow … the gods stood…
It sounded awfully close now; there were different sounds now, crashes, rocks tumbling. Near one house a huge rock fell from the high valley wall right in their yard, squashing a half-finished table. All around the valley rim, there was noise, noise, noise…
The gods turned.
The boy had passed through his entire – and by necessity, inventive – repertoire of curse words and was inventing several new ones, quite an achievement for a 6-year-old but he had always been an inventive child. He had very few matches left now and no fire whatsoever. Three matches left … flick… strike … flare … out. Two. Flick. … Strike … flare … out! One match.
The gods bowed…
Last match, oh gods oh gods light! Flick. .. Strike … flares … shit! No more matches. He’d gone through the ones, which had been here already, and the spares he’d brought with him, there were none left. The noises were reaching a feverous pitch and there were rocks falling into the valley, trees swaying without wind and falling over even…
The gods stepped. ..
He cast around for something, anything, any single thing to get this fire lit but he was running out of time…
The gods bowed…
There was a noise beside him and he caught a glimpse of light in the corner of his eye. It was a burning piece of wood. Who-? A hand held the wood. The hand was made of bones. The fire was clearly blackening the bone somewhat, but the owner of the bony hand appeared to neither notice of care. The boy numbly, silently, carefully took the burning wood by the safe end and dropped into the bowl by the thirteenth’s feet. The flame caught, the oil soaked wood in the bowl ate it up. He saw fingers of bone pointing somewhere over to his right, he looked.
The gods sat…
The noise started to die away as the flames rose and the gods silently watched but the thirteenth was still pointing. The boy, the danger over and his hide apparently saved, breathed. The thirteenth was now pointing with two fingers, he noticed. Curiosity overcame his fear for a moment and he looked right at the fingers, all bony and strange … at which point the fingers poked him in the eyes. His vision blurred with sparks and tears, the boy decided that leaving would be the wisest course and started for the stairs down to the village.
He seriously broke the Rules many more times that night, stealing many a look look back as he descended. The thirteenth’s hood faced towards him a moment, seemed to nod and then turned back to wherever it normally looked at. He gathered himself and began his careful ascent down with eyes fixed ahead. He had broken enough Rules for one night; he decided and made sure to count-step, count-step being sure to be in time with the gods and their endless rhythm. He heard them shuffle and the gods stand-turn- bow-step-bow- sit and he progresses down the next flight… count- step, count-step…
When the girl ascending crossed him on the steps, she was faintly surprised, though still very sleepy and not paying enough attention to ask too many questions, he looked both haunted and frightened though, which was odd. He was also smiling, which was odder…
He remembered what he’d seen when the thirteenth had poked his eyes. In the explosion of stars which filled his vision, he saw inside the shadow and saw the face. It was a skull, it was a face, and it was a skull again…it was his face and it was not…it was the face of a boyishly beautiful man with eyes of different colours them it was his face…then it was nothing.
The gods stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit…stand-turn-bow- step- bow-sit… stand- turn-bow-step-bow-sit. .. Stand-turn- bow- step- bow-sit. …