“Go on, run away, you cowardly fiddler!”
“Yes, take your fiddle and shove it up your arse!”
“Run home to your parents, you piss-streak!”
“Aw, look at the little baby waddle! Hahaha!”
The mocking jeers and laughter of his peers chased Bain Neldson like winged phantoms, haunting him all the way home. What could he have done, though? There were more of them, and they were bigger, stronger and older than he. Despite the logic of the retreat, tears welled in his eyes and his ears burned in tandem with his heart with the humiliation of defeat. At fifteen years old, the judgement of his peers was the world to him, crushing him under its pressure. Live to fight another day, he told himself. It was not worth taking a beating from those fools just for the sake of his pride, nor was it worth beating them down for it either, he reflected as he ran home. His injured pride was not worth causing pain.
Such thoughts wounded him with self-loathing, though, leaving him feeling weak and cowardly just as the village boys had claimed. He wondered if he ought to feel more offended, whether he should have defended his honour. Would he have done so if he were larger and they smaller? Maybe. So was the only reason he did not hurt them cowardice? Maybe. His heart sank like a stone. He did not want to believe himself a coward, but fears of cowardice crept up on him like weeds up trellises.
He wondered if truly brave people ever feared cowardice. Everybody feared something, he supposed, but did brave people ever even consider the concept of cowardice or was it anathema to them? Did they fear what other people might think of them or did they just get on with their lives? Bain sighed. He wished he did not care what others thought of him. He wished he could get on with his life in peace, untroubled by fears of his own inadequacies, but they haunted him, ever haunted him, winged phantoms soaring around his head in never-ending circles and gibbering at him, making him doubt himself endlessly. He ran home across the wheat fields, hoping to outpace them, but as always they flew by his side every step of the way. He bounded across an irrigation ditch, feeling fast and lithe, startling a paddling of ducks who began splashing and quacking with affronted airs. He laughed, feeling some of his good humour restored. The world was filled with pleasure as well as pain, he reminded himself, and the crests were worth the troughs.
The village came into sight across the wheat fields then, a collection of simple timber lodges with thatched roofs, and Bain’s heart rose a little more at the thought of seeing his parents again. While he often grew fed up with them, at that moment he could think of no one he would rather see. He burst into his home with a sob, and his mother let out a cry, asked him what was wrong, and then before he could answer buried his face in her bosom, sweeping him into a tight embrace and cooing in his ear. He went limp in her grip like a child, weeping and snivelling. He had never felt so warm, so safe in his entire life. His mother’s arms wrapped around him like anacondas, her body a pillow that would soak up his tears, her cooing in tune with the song of his heart. The feeling overwhelmed him.
When at last his body was no longer wracked and the sobbing had diminished to sniffling, he wiped the snot from his nose and said in a thick, tremulous voice, “Thanks, ma. I needed that.”
“What’s the matter, my dear?” she crooned, and he proceeded to tell her the whole story about the other village boys teasing him for playing the fiddle.
At the end, she nodded understandingly. “They’re just jealous, Bain. It’s nothing to fret about. Here, let me dry your tears.”
He felt a little better at this, but he also felt dismissed and wholly misunderstood, alone in the vastness of Maradoum. He was the only one to ever feel what he was feeling, he was sure. Nobody understood him.
He was about to mope off, when his mother said, “Your father is delivering a wagonload of grain to the Temple of Agrissimo after lunch. You should go with him. You know his back isn’t what it used to be.”
Bain sighed, all thoughts of whiling away the day playing at being a hero dashed. “I know. I’ll go.”
After a frugal repast of cheese, bread and ham, Bain and his father, Neld Stivorson, began the short journey to the Temple of Agrissimo, God of the Harvest, on the outskirts of the village. Unlike the houses, the temple was a timber-framed stone structure, albeit not a large one. A grain silo stood beside it, by which Bain and Neld deposited the sacks piled on the wagon. A couple of bald, skinny priests swept out of the temple in simple brown wool robes to bless the duo and promise to pray for them and their crops. Bain and Neld nodded and gave thanks.
Then, Neld beckoned his son. “Come on, Bain. Let’s pay our respects while we’re here.”
Bain bobbed his head and followed his father into the temple, feeling the stone cast a definite coolness on his skin as he passed under its pall. He shivered, wondering if he were feeling only the chill or a godly presence. His bare feet slapped the floor sacrilegiously as he went, like fish were flopping about in the sacred space. He winced and tried to tiptoe.
Passing through a spartan corridor to a pillared hall, Bain and his father laid eyes on a statue on a plinth in the centre of the room. A round hole had been carved in the ceiling above it, so that at noon every day it would be bathed in sanctimonious sunlight that eschewed the corners of the chamber, deeming itself for the statue’s eyes only. The statue itself had none of the sunlight’s haughtiness. Half-shadowed now that the sun had passed its zenith, it depicted a playful satyr mid-skip, half-man, half-goat, with one hoof in the air and a smile on its chubby beardless face. It clutched an intricately sculpted fiddle in one hand, and a sheaf of wheat was tucked behind one of its pointed ears, near blending in with its thick curls. The satyr was a common representation of the God of the Harvest.
Bain and Neld knelt on straw mats laid out before the statue and, clasping their hands, prayed silently to Agrissimo for a bountiful harvest the following year. Neld maintained that such a tradition was the reason his crops thrived where others’ struggled or failed. Bain believed him – to an extent. He also believed the soil played a large part. His father planted in loam, while others did so in clay. While his father’s head was bowed, Bain looked up at the statue, at its carefree face.
Am I a coward? he wondered. He decided there was only one way to find out. He needed to do something risky. He needed to do something dangerous.
The impulse was strong in him, and so when his father finished praying and rose, Bain said, “Go ahead and talk to the priests about next month’s load, father. I’ll be along in a moment.”
Once his father’s footsteps had receded from his hearing, Bain swiftly began to climb the larger-than-life statue, grabbing its hoof and scrambling up one of its goat-legs. He wanted to touch the fiddle. He identified with Agrissimo because of his own love of the wonderful music that could be coaxed from such an instrument, and he felt compelled to touch the sculpted fiddle to somehow cement that connection. There were no priests in the hall, just him and his ragged breathing as he grabbed the satyr’s arm and hauled himself toward the fiddle it held upraised. With one foot on the satyr’s knee, he stretched, his arm extended, but he could not quite touch the instrument. Taking a firm grip on the statue’s arm, he lurched up, his feet in the air momentarily.
His fingers grazed the fiddle, and the world fell away.
He lost sight of the statue, the sunlight, the hall and the temple. Suddenly, all he could see was a waterfall. He recognised it. People called it Wolfhead Waterfall. It was a forbidden place, rumoured to be home to Demons. Suddenly, he was swooping towards the waterfall like a diving falcon, the surrounding landscape a blur. Then, he was whooshing through it, though he did not feel a single drop of water as he did so. On the other side of the cascade, he saw a steamy swamp, and in that swamp he saw a shining golden fiddle.
In a flash, he was back in the temple, back in the hall.
His foot slipped as it came down on the satyr’s knee, and Bain tumbled arse over head off the statue, landing with a grunt and a thump on the cold stone floor. He was up in a blink, bouncing with energy, barely noticing his grazes. He bounded out of the temple and jigged impatiently while his father discussed another delivery with the two priests, running his hands through his long earth-toned hair again and again.
Finally, his father was ready, and he and Bain smiled and waved awkwardly, hopped in the wagon, turned it around, cracked the whip above the draft horse’s ears and left. The birdsong, the hum of flies and the monotonous clip-clop of the horse’s hooves on the packed dirt road would normally have soothed Bain to sleep, but he felt full of fire this day, ready to run and leap and climb and hurdle and shout and sing. His fiddle went everywhere with him, and so he played it ceaselessly on the way back through the village, singing old shanties his parents and the other villagers had taught him over the years until his voice was hoarse and his calloused fingers sore. The music rose and fell in sonic waves, twanging with passion and emotion, whispering out like a secret between friends and then crescendoing to a flamboyant finale, before beginning the cycle over with a new tune. His father bobbed along with the music at first in a vague imitation of dancing while driving, then grew tetchy, but was tapping a foot again by the time they made it home.
Once they were home, Bain was put to work ploughing the fields with the draft horse so that the soil would welcome the fresh seeds he and his father would sow. Evergreens and flame-toned trees fluttered in the wind all around him. As soon as dusk pulled up its diamond-dusted cowl, Bain led the horse back to the stables, fed it some grain, filled its trough from a well and rubbed it down. Then, he checked its hooves for pebbles. He sang to it softly all the while, and the horse whickered contentedly.
Once done, Bain told his parents he was going for a swim in the stream nearby. Then, he set off in the opposite direction, night tugging at the world with purple fingers. He made a beeline for Wolfhead Waterfall, running across wheat and barley fields to save time. He figured he could get back home well before midnight if he hurried. He would be scolded, he knew, but after the vision in the temple, he had to see the waterfall for himself. He passed through a coniferous woodland, recalling the way to the waterfall easily.
He and his father had passed it more than once on grain deliveries, and always his father had told him, “See the wolf head there? That marks Wolfhead Waterfall, a place of mystery and danger. You must never go there, my son. They say Demons dwell behind its screen, where there is a pit that leads straight down to the Nether itself!”
In the past, Bain had always blanched and gulped and wanted nothing whatsoever to do with Demons. He could not entirely explain what had changed, save that he had felt a tug of sorts during the vision, a beckoning. Something or someone wanted him to go to the waterfall. Perhaps if he went, he thought, Agrissimo would reward him with the glorious golden fiddle he had seen in the vision. He could not run fast enough to keep up with his excitement, which left him in its dust in leaps and bounds. Springing out of the woods, he started skidding down a rocky slope to the distant waterfall and the small lake at its base, scree clattering as he went. He almost pitched over and tumbled down the incline a number of times, but he refused to slow down, boyish enthusiasm sending him hurtling on. Soon, he was standing at the edge of the lake, staring into the heart of the glistening falls. The moon had risen during his mad dash, illuminating the water droplets like sparkling diamonds, glossing over the whole cascade with a shining silvery sheen augmented by the spray that wafted through the air like a host of ghosts.
“Wow,” Bain murmured, absorbing the magic of the moment.
The lake was hemmed in on both sides by sheer black cliffs, one of which had a crag that looked a great deal like a wolf’s head if the beholder was half-blind and deranged. The only way to the waterfall was to swim, so that was what Bain did, first stripping off his beaver fur coat, woollen tunic and moccasins and leaving them on a boulder on the bank with his fiddle. The water was so cold that he could not convince himself to dip in slowly. He hurled himself in bodily, sank and then surfaced spluttering and gasping and cursing the cold, feeling his manhood shrivel. Within minutes, though, he was pulling himself up on the far side of the lake onto the slippery wet black rocks there glistening in the lunar radiance. He shivered as a night breeze cut through him, goosebumps pimpling his flesh. His breeches were soaked through and given no chance to dry, for the spray drifted over him once he was close to the cascade and he relished it, sticking out his tongue and catching it. He wondered how mere water could possibly produce such loud music; it was thunderous, like the roar of a watery beast. It drummed the smoothed rocks in an endless beat as old as time, a perpetual percussion.
Bain wanted to feel that drumming on his own skin, feel it synchronise with his heartbeat. He stepped into the waterfall and stayed there for a moment with the strangest drifting sensation like his soul had come unanchored, feeling the cascade massage his shoulders with its heavy pitter-patter. He sighed, spat and smiled, a feeling of peacefulness rushing over him along with the water. It was not so cold in the water’s embrace where the wind could not reach him. Eventually, he stepped forward, wanting to see the other side of the waterfall. As he did so, though, he became dislodged. He could feel his soul hurtling through time and space for a stomach-wrenching moment, and then he fell to his knees and vomited.
On all fours, panting, eyes watering, Bain recognised something strange. He was not cold anymore, nor could he feel the touch of the bitter wind. A peculiar humid heat assailed him, in fact, and he wondered whether he might be in the grip of a fever, or whether he had lain down in the cold to die and was now delirious. Wiping his mouth, he looked around with bleary eyes. Gnarly black mangrove trees overgrown with olive moss barred his vision, hundreds of them in unruly rows growing up out of the stagnant slime that swirled around their many roots, glistening with an unhealthy black patina like oil in the moonlight. They were unlike any trees Bain had ever seen. Here and there, sad patches of dry land lit by floating will o’ the wisps were the last testament of the sunken earth.
Along with the pervasive tweeting and twittering of birds in the night sky and the drone of oversized bugs swarming the fetid water, Bain could hear hooting in the star-dappled green canopy and now and then caught a glimpse of a figure flitting between the branches. Monkeys, he thought incredulously. There were no monkeys in the Highlands of Fjelburg that he knew of. There were no swamps either, and yet here he was, in a swamp. He rose to his feet, standing on a wide, smooth boulder off which the cascade ricocheted into the surrounding brackish water. The silvery tinkle of the ricochet punctuated the thunderous roar of the waterfall so harmoniously that it made Bain’s eyes well up, the beauty of the sound penetrating his poet’s soul.
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