Elizabeth Cunningham

About Place Journal 2015 aboutplacejournal.org
Elizabeth Cunningham
 
Remembering the Future: The Beginning of an Unwritten Novel
 
Note: this unwritten novel is set in a post-apocalyptic future. The mountain landscape is one that has regenerated from an actual industrial past. I call this opening excerpt a memory of the future, because the idea came to me as a memory of a future life. In this future life and novel animals and rocks are as important (or more so) than people. I will write from non-human points of view. I hope to continue this novel when I finish a novel-in-progress, set in the last century.
 
Memree wondered if she would see the gar-girls today, or gar-goyles as they referred to themselves. They liked a high wind. It lifted their spirits, they said, lifted the wings they usually kept hidden, folded into rocks where they hunched waiting for the rain to spew from their mouths (or other orifices) into torrential speech. At least Memree understood their spouting as speech. To her everything was speech. The name she was known by was short for her formal name She Who Remembers Speech.
 
“It could as well be, She Whose Feet have Climbed Mountains uphill both ways, She Who Swims the Waterfall, again uphill,” she mumbled between breaths, as the grade of her path steepened.
 
It was like Chance to call a meeting in the high cave. And like him to send a hawk with his message. Chance was the name he was known by. No one but she remembered his full name, He Who Enchants the Fish from the Stream, the Birds from the Trees. Anyone who knew him now would think it short for Last Chance, croaking old prophet of doom he’d become (no offense intended to the Raven people). No one but Memree was old enough to remember the boy who would always take a chance, who would do anything to feed the hungry.
 
Memree scanned the fierce blue sky for a glimpse of a gar-girl, wishing she could flag one down for a lift. The wind was so strong, she might get blown off a cliff. She considered shape-shifting but her wings would be turned inside out with these gusts. She could be carried realms away, maybe as far as the sea (she still dreamed of the sea.) And for a moment she could hear the crash of surf in the wind.
 
“Watch where you’re going,” she told herself. “You can dream tonight.”
 
So long ago, under a bearskin, their cold anger turned to heat while the storm outside the cave swallowed the world.
 
Memree snatched her cloak from the wind and bent to the mountain. Rising over the trees, almost seeming to float at times, was the crag, so bright in the spring light, her eyes dazzled and her heart flew where her wings couldn’t. When all was said and done (whenever that time came) the mountain was her truest love (and yes, there had been false loves, but that was long ago).
 
Chance listened to the wind circle the mountain, secure in the cave where he’d spent the winter dreaming, needing no other warmth than the heat generated by the old he-bear who’d greeted him with a sleepy grunt when he came in out of the first snow. The bear people had taught him hibernation in his old age as they had taught him, when he was young, how to pull a trout from a stream with a bear paw or a bare hand. He had tried to teach others how to slow their hearts and slip down into the deep stream of dream, far underground, where no cold or hunger reached, but no one had the patience to learn the slow, ancient arts. They never had.
 
(His dreams had not been sweet this winter. He had to tell her, if she would listen—if—then the others might. She could carry his dreams, be his dream-bearer.)
 
He did not need to look outside of the cave to see Memree struggling up the mountain in the wind. How many times had he warned her, told her not to walk in the wind. But for one who remembered speech, she prided herself on paying no heed to his wisdom. He hadn’t called this wind on purpose. It was a Spring wind with a purpose of its own. If he cared to focus, he might have been able to speak to the wind, gentle it a bit, but he decided not to bother. Memree was a stubborn old woman. She would walk on into the wind, just to prove she could. She never learned. No one ever did.
 
Maybe he would make her something hot to drink. Since he and the bear had gotten up for Spring, he’d kept a fire going. It didn’t frighten the bear, an old loner like himself. The bear came and went as he pleased. Chance still had plenty of water from melted snow. He filled a kettle and hung it over the fire. Then he rummaged in his bag for some ginseng root that he’d gathered last Fall. That would warm and stimulate her blood, keep her from catching her death of the cold that would probably one day kill her, if he didn’t get around to doing it first.
 
Something was wrong with his face; his cheeks were pulling at his mouth. Still Chance wasn’t going to admit even to himself (and there was no one else but the bear) that he’d be happy to see her again, his best enemy.
 
The mountain thought, when it wanted to think, in different images and tones, for different aspects itself, tree, stone, stream, hidden pool, owl, raptor, wood thrush, wolf, fox, coyote, bear, all these were mountain, cave and root and loose scree, spring bloom, and summer berry, moss, briar, the boy following the goats, the woman who swept the ruined temple. Sometimes the mountains gathered these scattered thoughts into its own massive density; sometimes it let all them wander where they would, or let the rain and wind take them, the sun bake them.
 
The mountain was young, as mountains go. It could still remember the time under the ocean when currents carried the rock that would become its stony ridges, and then the massive rivers that refined its shape. It still held ice in its caves, and waters still trickled down its sides, joining the rivers that ran through the valleys on either side. Humans had come in their own shorter cycles, some hunting winter game and sheltering in caves or houses made of bark. After them, the ones who sheared away the trees, leaving the mountain bare, bleating with sheep, and ringing with chisels that carried away great chunks of stone.
 
These humans did not know the mountain was alive, could sorrow, rage, and bleed. These humans had a hard life, though, they toiled and drank, bred and died in droves until no one needed anymore all that they once took from the mountain, all they thought was endless.
 
The trees came back in a slow, green wave, fitting themselves between the massive stone, catching the wind’s song, singing it to the mountain, becoming the mountain singing. Some people came to hear the song, or to climb the stone, imagining they could see, what the mountain saw, know what the mountain knew. A few did. Most went back down, back to the crowded human places they called home. And every night, the mountain breathed again its own sweetness, and its rocks silvered in the moon’s light, and it stark cliffs stood vigil, marking the procession of the stars.
 
To be continued…in the future.

 
 
 
Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen. Her third collection of poems So Ecstasy Can Find You was published in September, 2015. A fellow emeritus of Black Earth Institute, she lives in New York State’s Shawangunk Mountains.
 

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