They asked me why I’d want to spend my life in such a high, lonely place. The winters will be so cold you cannot hear your own thoughts, they said. Only a dull drone, a hum, like the sound that comes from the temple when the monks are at their morning chant. And you have a choice. You always have a choice.
I didn’t know how to tell them that I’d take the mountain over another day in Hearthshame.
I used to wake up to a smack on my lintel and a harsh shout: “Up!” My hands were raw by thirteen, worn red by the lye in our soap. Some days I’d be so weary from turning the fat, heavy laundry with my paddle that I’d dream up shapes in the steam. Great birds, like the yenhawks that lived at the mountain’s peak. Big enough to carry me away.
True, there were happy moments. When I gave my father my first month’s wages—our bellies that night were full. The sound of voices mingling during evening chant, ringing off the stone with the clarity of a cauldron’s note. The particular velvet green of the fields at summer’s peak.
But now I wake up to the far off, haunting cries of the yenhawks as they hunt. The first thing I see when I look out my window—made of glass, if you can believe—is the veil of snow that always covers our shy maiden mountain’s head. And when I prepare our morning meal, it’s from a supply of grain and salted meat that will take years yet to run down.
We eat four times a day.
On this particular morning, the sky is wrapped in clouds like torn silk. My father hums a chant as he dishes out what is mornmeal for me, evemeal for him. Ever since we came up here to keep the beacon, he’s gained weight. His gaunt cheeks are rounded now.
“What’s on your mind, Pet?” His favorite question.
“All right. I was thinking how much I like it up here.”
He smiles, spooning hot porridge into his mouth. It’s heaped with honeycomb and jellied limocots and spices. “You don’t miss anything?”
I think for a while. I don’t want to break our rule. We decided it when we came up here, the two of us, left alone on a mountaintop apart from the world. We swore we would not lie. “I miss the purple flowers,” I tell him. “The ones they used to throw on holy days.”
“My Lady’s Eyes.”
“Exactly those.” They were small, no larger than the nail on my littlest finger. Many blooms per stem. They smelled sharp and sweet, like a spoonful of sugar mixed in cider. We’d toss them in the streets, and at the end of the day, when you curled up in your hard bed and smiled for the celebrating, the bottoms of your shoes were stained like blood.
“That’s it? That’s all?” He has a wistful look in his wrinkle-wrapped eyes.
“That’s all.” I know he doesn’t believe me. He can’t fathom a world without affection, without the close press of one heart to another. At least, he couldn’t, until my mother died. But it’s not worth explaining to him that I’ve nothing but a scientific curiosity about such things. Better that he has some imaginings, a daydream of grandchildren. A vision that someday, we will leave.
Better that than imagining we will have to light the beacon.
He ushers me out the door when our meal is over. “I’ll clean up.”
I let him. This is yet another duty we share. When I eat my evemeal—his mornmeal—I will stay behind in the cabin while he goes out to the cliff’s edge and watches. Two eyes, always on the next beacon over. Looking for fire.
Despite the scattered clouds today, I have a clear view to our neighboring mountain, the Jubilee. Its war beacon waits like a toad, unlit. I remember when a man and wife were drawn for it and they made their choice to leave. She had to drink the blue oil first, the one that burns out your womb so as to make you barren. Beacon-keepers are not allowed a third, or a fourth, or a fifth, up on the mountain, though we have food enough to fill their bellies. No, our sacred duty is only for four eyes to share.
Today, the Jubilee Beacon is black as it has been on all other days.
Today, I bring a set of pencils and a sheaf of parchment. The Oran gave them to me as a special gift when I accepted this sacred duty. We were each allowed one request, me and my father. My father requested the pink salt that is reserved only for Orans and their wives. Now we put it on everything, even this morning’s porridge.
The landscape I sketch is the same as ever: a wide swathe of silver granite, untouched by trees; pearlescent snow-caps like winking eyes; and the Jubilee, an ever-present scar. I’m not supposed to take my eyes from it, not according to the vow I made. Not while I’m sitting here. But I bend the rule, glancing down at my parchment from time to time.
Father will complain, but he’ll put this finished picture on the wall with all the rest of them.
The sun stretches across the sky. My gloved hands and wide-brimmed hat protect me. I have cold tea, salt pork, fresh-baked fruit bread, and a pot of honey to fill my belly at noonmeal. For quartermeal, bread and the aged cheese they stocked for us when we came. It’s enough to make my mouth water as I draw. This luxury will never cure the memory of hunger.
Then, a strange shift: the wind rises. My hat blows backward, choking me as its ribbon catches around my neck. The sun blinds me, but beneath the sound of the wind, I hear it, just for an instant: the dull beat of drums.
I hold my breath.
No. The wind dies again. It is but my heart, pounding as if to leap from my chest. There are no drums below, no war. On some days it’s possible to forget there is even civilization.
My drawing is spoiled. I jumped when my hat blew off, scarring the sheet with a thick line of red. I fold the paper up and rip it into little pieces, letting the low breeze carry it away. Perhaps some other beacon keeper will find it. Or perhaps it will fly to a distant corner of this world, exploring where I cannot go.
I sleep soundly up here on the mountain, most nights. But tonight is different. Outside, the moon reaches its fullest point, pregnant like a held breath. From the cliff’s edge, my father’s shadow falls long and lean toward the cabin, leaner than he is in life. I should be sleeping—twelve hours is a long time to sit and watch the Jubilee—but instead, I hear the war drums again.
My feet are cold on the cabin floor. I go to the back door, the one to our outhouse, but I don’t make the snowy journey to that lone building. With my eyes closed, I stand beneath the eaves of the cabin instead, on the lip of earth that remains untouched by snow, and I breathe it in: the fresh, clean air. Peppery and pine-brushed.
Like fingers, it stirs against my cheek.
I open my eyes to find a yenhawk not six feet from me. Its long, graceful neck bends backwards like a knot as it preens its feathers. The moon is bright enough that I can see the bird’s splendor: red like wine, like garnets, like a drop of blood. Yet there is a touch of purple, the color of the Oran’s robes. Just three feathers, on its right wing. I watch as its short, curved beak plucks them.
The creature breathes, chest heaving, and the power behind its grace becomes clear. It stands several feet above me, and if it were to stretch out its wings, I could lay on its back crosswise and my feet would barely touch the jointures where the wingfeathers begin.
It’s big enough to climb upon.
From Hearthshame, they looked so small. So lonely. Flecks of spilled soup against a mournful, clouded sky. This one has claws the length and breadth of my legs, and sharp enough to score the stone it stands on.
I haven’t moved, haven’t breathed, but the yenhawk jerks up suddenly, its breath making clouds in the cold, clear night. Then, before I can say a word, it turns to me, its beak partly open and one leg raised. Those claws could scoop out my innards. I’d be nothing but a stain of blood on the snow by the time my father found me. I hear the drums again.
But its eyes are yellow, yellow like the moon above, and knowing in a way that not even my father’s feel knowing. Keen enough to see through to my soul.
Then it is in the air, blowing me back against the door as it takes to the sky.
I go back inside to seek warmth beneath my heaps of covers, but I do not sleep for a long time.
Beacon-watching after a night of low sleep is agony.
I play games with myself to stay awake. Find seven green things. The ribbons around my wrists, pinning closed my sleeves, don’t count. After that, list the Orans and their wives in order, starting with Huble the First. I always trail off after Exchen.
The day grows long.
After quartermeal, I hear a clear, high call overhead. More yenhawks—three, this time. They circle like a red halo, high above our cabin. I wait for one of them to dive, but they never do. Not hunting, then. I wonder which ritual I’m seeing instead.
I wish that I could draw them.
But I’ve already looked away from the Jubilee for too long. Across the mountains, I see the beacon platform, blank and black and staring back.
I think of that young beacon-keeping couple. Perhaps not so young anymore. But not old either.
Surely I imagined the drums. The product of an overactive mind—nothing more. It’s easy to imagine things, up here on the mountain. It’s easy to get carried away.
I sleep soundly that night. Things continue as they had before, our meals keeping track of the turning moon. My father gets even fatter, and he holds the little pudge in his stomach and jiggles it before we eat our shared meal. He smiles, like he hasn’t in a long time. He puts up my drawings.
I should tell him about the drums, but I can’t bring myself to do it. We both had a choice, when we were drawn to come up here. We could have said no. We knew the risks.
The worries that you bring to the mountain are the ones you pack in your bags below. That’s what the monk told me as we set out on the backs of surefooted asses. He’s right. We have more food than we could ever eat. We have the cry of the yenhawks as the stars come up. In the coldest months, we have snow to batter you and erase all but the dark implication of the Jubilee. We have so much joy.
Over our shared meal, my father sighs, scooping honeycomb out of the jar with a spoon. Who’s to call him out for manners? Certainly not me.
“My Pet,” he says, almost absently, “do you know it has been fourteen years and eleven months since we came up here?”
I did not know.
“And tomorrow is the Feast of the Thrice-Lucky.”
A good day for hot, sweet dough and high-pitched chants, the kind that children sing. I remember it well. We used to have a half-day off from the laundries. We’d buy the fried dough for a penny and eat it so fast our tongues burned for days afterward.
But that’s not what my father is remembering.
“The Feast of the Thrice-Lucky. We’ve only three months, Pet. Three months more.”
Another Drawing is coming. Three more full moons, winking down at me, and then I’ll say my goodbyes.
Strange, to find that I don’t want to.
It was too risky a thought to have. I should not have had it. But up here on the mountain, there’s no one to tell you no, no one to take your coin and bite it, a look of distrust on their face. There’s only the peppery smell and the yenhawks, and seven green things.
The next night, I’m awakened before my time by the drums.
They are not my heart.
I know what they are by the sound of my father, bursting into the cabin. He has abandoned his post watching the Jubilee, a crime punishable by execution. Drowning in a vat of oil. It’s not a pleasant thing to see—I’ve seen it. Yet he doesn’t even look afraid.
He looks stunned. Pale, beneath the brown kiss of the mountain. “Do you hear that?” he asks.
For the first time, I actually consider lying to him. What would he do? Would he run with me? But he’s too proud, too honorable. And besides, I promised. “Yes, Father.”
The drums of the Oman marching to war.
He looks around the cabin as if he’s never seen it, as if it has not been home for fourteen years. We both knew the risks, when we made this choice. And yet we did not think it would come to this.
No beacon keeper does.
He goes out again, as if to remind himself of the sound drums make. Bah-dum. Bah-dum-bum. I can’t really tell the difference between them and my heartbeat, not anymore. I put on boots, but I stop before pulling on my warm furs. It’s not as if I’ll need them.
Outside, moonlight spills across the receding snow. The warmest month. A good time for this, I think. The middle of a blizzard would make things hard.
Father is down at our usual watching-point, his face turned toward the Jubilee. And when I reach his side, the breeze brings the drums louder, as if to emphasize the stark reality of the moment. War. War is come.
And war means the lighting of the beacons.
Against the pitch darkness of the lonely night, a blaze of gold. The Jubilee erupts, spiraling upward with a reach to brush the heavens. I think I hear music, chanting, the prayer of the monks for the Oran and his fatal decision on this day. For to go to war is to light the beacons, and those should not be lit without pause.
I watch the Jubilee burning, and I fancy I can feel the fire against my cheeks. This is a lie, of course. I feel only the neck-nibble of my mountain’s breeze. But I think that couple would want us to remember them burning hot, like the core of a star.
The Jubilee reflects twice in my father’s eyes. “Impossible.”
We swore we wouldn’t lie. “No, Father. It’s time.”
He turns to me, his face looking as thin and drawn as it had when we came up here. “This cannot be.”
“Our time is now. We must fulfill our oaths.” I am able to keep my voice level, but I hardly know how. I feel weary, though I try not to show it. My father was always sensitive to my weariness.
When he still doesn’t move, I take his hand—like marble—and draw him along behind me to the platform of our beacon. The Watchtower. That’s what we are. The last beacon of war of our nation, letting all our enemies know that our Oran marches upon them.
I stop when we reach the center of the platform. “You know what we must do.”
There’s a jar of oil and a box of matches waiting in a ceramic box on the platform. We have kept it always clean, always reachable, always swept of snow. We’ll alight in a moment, but we’ll burn for a while. The Jubilee remains a golden comet, falling in reverse.
“No,” says my father. “No, love. Not like this.”
“We promised.” I’m already reaching for the oil. Strange, to see how my hand is shaking.
Then, a small miracle: a brush of the wind against my cheek.
A yenhawk lands beyond the platform, ankle-deep in the snow. Its head tilts curiously at us, standing still and ready to burn. It looks afire itself, its amber feathers bristling with moonlight. I see three purple ones. Perhaps the same bird, then. Or perhaps another.
Its yellow eyes center on me. This is right, I think. As last looks go, those knowing eyes are not the worst of them.
Several things happen at once:
My father pushes me, hard, into the snow. All his newfound strength, the fat atop the muscle, gives him power, and I’m sprawled and breathless in the cold before I can blink. Then I hear the crash of broken pottery in the night, and the flick of a match lighting. The yenhawk cries.
It rends my heart.
“No,” I say, watching my father. The fire burns lower on the match, closer and closer to his oil-drenched skin.
“This is the way of it,” he says, and to my surprise he is smiling. “This is how it should be. Don’t be shamed, my daughter.” The fire creeps closer to his thumb. Too fast, too fast it moves, spurred onward by the breeze. “When the west wind blows, will you think of me?”
“Yes—” I say, or start to say, but the fire reaches his thumb, and with a slow lazy leap it aureoles his hand, and then his shoulders, and then I feel it, I feel the fire of him against my cheeks, and the night is lit with yellow light like liquid as he burns, burns, burns.
Tears steam off my cheeks. I lunge from the snow and try to reach for him, to throw him into the cold, to put him out. But the yenhawk moves at the same time, and I think, Yes, to be a stain of blood on the snow.
Its claws close around my stomach. With a clack, they touch.
A moment later, my whole body yanks and we are soaring. The wind batters me. My ribbons flutter and fly off my sleeves, freed. I taste ash in my mouth and I realize I am tasting my father.
Below us, as we fly, seven beacons burn.
The yenhawk takes me somewhere I have never been: a nest.
It’s warm and large enough to fit several of me, even when the bird curls up around me like a warm feathered blanket, pulls me close with its neck, and falls asleep.
I can hear something. Not drums. A heartbeat, steady and fast. Faster even than mine. The bird’s eyelids move, but it doesn’t wake.
Around me is the crown of a vast tree, larger than any I have ever seen. I count many green things. I hear the rustling of leaves and feathers and a hum of quiet contentment and I think I count many of those, too. The yenhawk has brought me home.
I mourn for my father, and for my mountain. But right now, they are far away.
Instead, a flash of color catches my eye in the steeping dark. A bit of red. I lean forward, careful not to disturb the sleeping bird at my side. Woven into the branches of the nest is a piece of paper. A drawing, or a piece of one. It was once ripped to shreds and tossed to the wind in anger.
Now it’s the start of something new.