In the high foothills of an ancient mountain range, there was a forest, and in that forest, beside a deep, clear river, there was a house.
Inside the house there lived a boy and his grandmother. It was supposed to have been a temporary arrangement, him living with her, for the old woman’s work required long periods of solitude, but in time they found a way to live together, mainly by a heavy reliance on the folk of the high foothills, who helped take care of the boy.
In the mills and towns of the valleys below, humans had words for folk like this: faerie, goblin, troll and pixie, but in truth they varied as wildly in appearance and temperament as the dwellings in which they lived, and they lived in the roots and in the rocks, up in the branches and inside the hills, but wherever one lived it was always possible to see the lantern light of otherhomes blinking through the trees.
Most of the time, when they weren’t throwing parties, the folk of the foothills busied themselves with cooking and cleaning, crafting and mending, and above all tending to the old gods who dwelled in this place.
The old gods were the crags and rivers, the ancient trees and the winds that poured down from the mountains. They were the sleeping creatures of the land itself.
‘You see,’ said the old woman one night over supper, ‘It can take a long time to find the place where your old god sleeps, and longer still to summon it up. All our neighbours and all your friends have done this, and I’m sorry to say, but if you do not do this before your eleventh birthday, the elders will have you out, back down to the cotton mills, and there won’t be a thing I can do about it.’
The boy thought about this for a while and said; ‘I know who my old god is. It’s the river outside. The problem is I just can’t bring it out.’
The steaming carrot on the end of the old woman’s fork froze before her mouth. She set it down, and had her grandson guide her to the exact spot: a deep gully tucked away between two hills, about a mile upstream from the house. After they had clambered down, she looked around in astonishment, for dotted about on the banks and boulders were dozens upon dozens of shrines, carefully assembled from smooth, dark river rocks. The whole gully was dappled with them.
She looked at her boy who was looking at the river. Though its waters ran clean and clear, the bottom of the river was cloaked in the movements of sunken grass, the gliding shadows of fish and the rippling skin of the river’s surface; a translucent mystery into which the boy’s heart reached.
The old woman took the boy’s hands and turned them over. Sure enough, they were scratched and calloused from the labour of all this shrine-making.
‘A boy your age should not have hands like these. You’re doing very well here, but please don’t be too hard on yourself.’
The boy nodded his agreement, but one year later three hundred shrines pocked the gully.
‘That’s what it’ll take,’ his friend Mica had said, who was the grandson of one of the elders. He lived beneath a tumble of old rocks, and rocks were what he knew. His bed was a rock, his face was a rock; even his old god was a rock – a giant one with a head like a bearded turtle, whose body turned to crystal on nights when stars were brightest.
Three hundred shrines, the boy had made, and it took him into the dusk of ninth birthday. His hands were far more calloused than they had been a year ago, yet still the river god did not reveal itself.
He slumped down beside one of the shrines and felt despair wash over him. He could feel a great presence inside the river, and in the shadows of his mind he could almost see the starlit outline of a long-bodied creature that he was sure was as curious about him as he was about it.
‘Why is it not working?’
He cast the question at the shrines, and did not expect to be answered, but the shrine opposite him opened its eyes and said: ‘Maybe shrines are overrated.’
The boy blinked. ‘A talking shrine.’
‘Nope,’ said the shrine, and it tumbled down into a heap of rocks and one of the rocks rolled right up to the boy’s feet, uncurling itself into a squat little figure with a gnarled face and a sparkle in his eyes.
‘You see, the best way to summon an old god is to get to know it, and the best way to do that is to become it! Study the salmon that live in the stream and let their movements get in your flesh. Then, when the time feels right, become one.’
Before the boy could even reply, the bright-eyed creature leapt up into a plume of black feathers and a raven flew out from the gully, hurling blasphemy at the sky.
‘Well that was odd,’ said the boy. ‘But it’s worth a try!’
Many moons passed. Many parties were missed.
‘Bring your lad over,’ Folk would say to the boy’s grandmother. ‘We never get to see him these days.’
‘Neither do I. He’s up in the gully trying to become a fish.’
Becoming a fish wasn’t easy and the boy had to spend many hours underwater, breathing through a reed in order to study the fish up close, for they swam with subtle motions, tail fins painting strings of invisible glyphs in the water.
One misty autumn day he was imitating the movements of a majestic old salmon as it wove through the sunken grass in which he was hiding, when it dawned on him he was no longer breathing through a reed pipe, but through his own gills. The waters of his river god were moving through him, through his blood, suffusing his muscles with the cold rush an old intelligence.
‘Yes!’ said the boy, in the tongue of salmon. ‘This is it, this is it!’
He darted down into the shadowy water and came to know his river in an entirely different way: hidden alcoves, nests of gravel, tasty little creatures, and the pleasures of swimming through falling water. Months went by, and on his tenth birthday he turned back into his two-legged shape and asked the river with all his heart to rise up and meet him face to face.
The river made no reply.
The boy slumped down beside one of the fallen shrines and asked himself if it was all worth the bother. If after one more year he had failed to summon the god, then the laws of the fey folk would force him to leave. Why not just spend what little time he had enjoying the friendships he’d neglected? Yarrow’s tree had learned to speak. Merris had borne a child the day her father had died. Koblum’s god had turned into a cocoon. They had always been there for him. Perhaps it was time to be there for them.
‘Becoming a fish a fine thing indeed,’ spoke a melodic voice on the moon-kissed wind. ‘But perhaps your god moves to a different tune.’
The boy looked up to find a slender figure standing on the gully’s edge. She was neither hare nor woman, but had the look of both. She leapt down beside the boy and from her pocket of took out a strange instrument and handed it to him. ‘Listen to the river’s voice. Play its song back to its waters.’
Before the boy could ask even a single question, the hare-woman was off, singing a darkly playful song in a language he had never heard.
What to do? Spend his final year in the company of friends, or potentially squandered it all trying to play the river’s hidden song with this strange new instrument?
The boy looked at the river and listened. The silver splashes, under-gurgles and steady rush of clear water surging through the deep ravine was a voice he’d become more familiar with than even that of his own grandmother’s. He lifted the instrument to his lips and blew a tentative note. It felt good, so he blew another.
One year later, on the eve of his eleventh birthday, music rose from the gully. The boy’s breath moved through the hidden architecture of the hare-woman’s instrument. It held an echo of the river’s soul, and boy’s longing to reach out and be part of it. It was music that held an unspoken prayer:
Come out, old god. Please come out.
As the last of the notes were carried off on the wind, the boy looked at the river and waited.
Nothing. No swelling up of the river’s body into animal form. Just the steady rush of water over rock.
Later on, after he’d been sent out of the forest, back down to the cotton-mills, grief would set in, but right now the boy was tired. Tired of hoping. Tired of trying.
He slumped down on the bank of the river, and cast himself into bottomless sleep.
The river god watched this limp little creature shivering on its bank. Of all the many two-leggeds to set foot in this gully, none had ever paid so much attention. All through the tumbling seasons, the river god had been slow-pressing the waters of its mind into the contours of the boy’s reaching flesh.
The intensity of the boy’s desire had carried him far, yet with each ‘failure’, as the boy had seen it, his desire had grown harder and harder until it became a stone that blocked the entrance to his heart. But now that stone was turning to vapour as he slept, and though all manner of shadows were pouring in, so too could the river god.
Rain fell. The river rose. Its voice rushed into the boy’s dreaming, and the boundaries between them grew thin.
The river dreamed he was a boy waking up from sleep. His flesh was crystal. His skin rippled. Inside his chest, stars shone.
The boy dreamed he was a river, his waters swelling up into a translucent-bodied leviathan. A thousand gleaming droplets cascaded from his mane as he sunk blue-granite claws into the soil and pulled himself onto the bank, sniffing at his cub, whilst the stars inside their bodies pulsed in conversation.
The next day, on the boy’s eleventh birthday, he walked into the hall beneath the roots of the great yew tree in the middle of the forest. All the folk of the high foothills were gathered, and those that knew him best could see a subtle difference in the way he moved: sure-footed, in no rush.
But the boy kept his gaze lowered.
In the centre of the crowd, the eldest of the elders walked forth to meet him. He liked the boy, and was not looking forward to sending him back to the world of humans, but their laws were ancient and could not be bent.
‘You are eleven today,’ said the elder to the boy. ‘Are you ready to hear our verdict?’
‘I am,’ said the boy.
He lifted his gaze, and the cold rush of an old intelligence flooded the elder’s vision, and the words he had anticipated to speak fell away, for this could only mean one thing.
He took the boy’s hands, and in the most solemn of tones he said: ‘Tonight will be a night of profound celebration.’
The cheer that rose from the roots of the yew was felt in the tips of its highest branches, and with it came music, laughter, gifts, and feasting.
The celebrations spilled from the night of one day into the dawn of the next, and the next after that as folk from the neighbouring mountains poured into the woods until there was not a single tree wreathed in lanterns.
Years passed. The boy became a man, set out into the world and walked the paths of distant lands. When sickness for home became too great, all he had to do was lean into the shaggy blue mane of the leviathan at his side. Yet there came a time when the both of them longed for the forest of the high foothill where their story began. The man was old now: older than any of his kind, for time moves differently to rivers, and it was a river that moved in his blood.
When it came time for the long sleep, he was right where he needed to be. On aching legs, he climbed into the gully, lay down by the river, and slipped into a dream.
In the dream there was a girl, in the high foothills of an ancient mountain range, in a forest, crouched in a gully beside a deep, clear river.
She wanted so much to stay here, but it was the eve of her eleventh birthday, and no old god had risen up to meet her. She slumped back against a hump of moss-covered rocks and drifted off into hopeless sleep.
Rain fell. The river rose. Its voice held the girl’s dreaming, and the boundaries between them grew thin.