Artifact 18: He Who Finds It Lives Forever
Beyond us, beyond the walled fortress of our city, a woods so thick and deep, we learned as children even our voices would never follow us back. The canopy stretched, farther than vision, an endless plain of greened tufts like a tinted mirror, reflecting the clouds, dense, back on themselves. Above the trees, hawks. Their scanning cries a death knell, carried on wind over city walls, low hymn for food they’d never find, every shrew and rabbit and mouse eaten, every small, shuddering heart devoured.
We knew as children that to go there was to be taken. By the red dog, great and hulking, larger than any canine, a phantom through trees. Our fathers told us he consumed every creature in the forest, laid in wait for travelers, hid beneath bog and brush, crimson fur matching all lack of light. I imagined him those nights awake, huddled beside my brother, thinking only of fangs, white glisten, the last known light. My father told us, as every other father did, that in the absence of hunting, the red dog held a bead of gold beneath his tongue. He who finds it lives forever, my father said. Then he laughed, a rough sound, said every man who ever tried never returned, not even his voice.
I rolled the bead inside my brain, as a dog would beneath his tongue. It occupied every empty space between broken stretches of sleep, on walks past the palace, inside the damp cellar where I learned to build the city’s canals. Gold, a small gem, malleable enough to pound translucent. I’d seen a priestess hold gold leaf to the sun, gossamer-fine, rare beauty I imagined spun into the shape of a pea, hidden lattice of honeyed light, clamped firm beneath muscle and fang. A bead like a seed, small casing to hold the world. More valuable than breath, if we lived forever, more elemental than water, made to flow through the aqueducts I shaped.
I knew my father was dying when he coughed red into his hand. A scarlet splash, dark and red as the fur I’d dreamed each night, a stain he wiped into his palm before my brother or I could see. I laid awake, listened to my brother breathe beside me, envied the quiet of the air through his mouth, the lack of razored teeth through his sleep. The pulse of his lungs, easy match for the ways a tongue can move, rhythmic, across the smooth-worn surface of gold.
An idea came to me, the morning I found a bin of bloodied rags behind our home, discarded. The same morning, in the cellar, when my master said our water would dry out, when he stood before a map of the city, ran his calloused fingers across the grid of palace and village, let them trail off past the fortressed walls. I watched his fingers move. I knew the contours of the land, that the forest sat above us. Our city, its basin. That to drink, to bathe, to live the way we knew would call upon gravity, continuous flow, the pull of the earth from the forest’s dark peak.
I found my father sitting on a stool, behind our home when I came back, the bin of rags gone though one snaked from his pocket, unbloodied, a muted net to catch his cough. Father, I said, and he looked up at me, and we both knew.
There is an aquifer, I said. He turned away from me. He knew where.
I am young, I said. I am expendable.
What I wanted to tell him was that I would find it. I would make him live forever.
But you are an idiot is all he said, and he pulled his rag from his pocket and coughed, a smattering of dots, vivid cherries. I watched the bright red and thought of fur, crimson coat, felt the fear drain from my skin. How I would go regardless, how I would pry open the dog’s mouth, pull the bead from his muscled tongue. A tongue strong enough to lick fur clean from shrews, to conceal the sheen of gold, but no match for my father’s, sharp enough to lash, to kill my voice before the woods unearthed the sound to keep.
Anne Valente’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Wigleaf, Unsaid, Annalemma and Dzanc Books Best of the Web 2010, among others. She lives and teaches in Ohio.