Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Valley of Giants

treebeard.jpg
TREEBEARD by TTThom, licensed under three free culture licenses

The Valley of Giants by Benjamin Rosenbaum
from “The Ant King and Other Stories” CC BY-NC-SA

I had buried my parents in their gray marble mausoleum at the heart of the city. I had buried my husband in a lead box sunk into the mud of the bottom of the river, where all the riverboatmen lie. And after the war, I had buried my children, all four, in white linen shrouds in the new graveyards plowed into what used to be our farmland: all the land stretching from the river delta to the hills.

I had one granddaughter who survived the war. I saw her sometimes: in a bright pink dress, a sparkling drink in her hand, on the arm of some foreign officer with brocade on his shoulders, at the edge of a marble patio. She never looked back at me—poverty and failure and political disrepute being all, these days, contagious and synonymous.

The young were mostly dead, and the old men had been taken away, they told us, to learn important new things and to come back when they were ready to contribute fully. So it was a city of grandmothers. And it was in a grandmother bar by the waterfront—sipping hot tea with rum and watching over the shoulders of dockworkers playing mah-jongg—that I first heard of the valley of giants.

We all laughed at the idea, except for a chemist with a crooked nose and rouge caked in the creases of her face, who was incensed. “We live in the modern era!” she cried. “You should be ashamed of yourself!”

The traveler stood up from the table. She was bony and rough-skinned and bent like an old crow, with a blue silk scarf and hanks of hair as black as soot. Her eyes were veined with red.

“Nonetheless,” the traveler said, and she walked out.

They were laughing at the chemist as well as at the traveler. To find anyone still proud, anyone who believed in giants or shame, was hilarious. The air of the bar was acrid with triumph. Finding someone even more vulnerable and foolish than we were, after everything had been taken from us—that was a delight.

But I followed the traveler, into the wet streets. The smell of fish oozed from the docks. Here and there were bits of charred debris in the gutters. I caught her at her door.

She invited me in for tea and massage. Her limbs were weathered and ringed, like the branches of trees in the dry country. She smelled like honey that has been kept a while in a dark room, a little fermented. A heady smell.

In the morning, brilliant sunlight scoured the walls and the floor, and the traveler and her pack were gone.

I hurried home. My house had survived the war with all its brown clay walls intact, though the garden and the courtyard were a heap of blackened rubble. My house was empty and cold.

I packed six loaves of flatbread, some olives, a hard cheese, one nice dress, walking clothes, my pills and glasses, a jug of wine, a canteen of water, and a kitchen knife. I sat in the shadow in my living room for a while, looking at the amorphous mass of the blanket I had been crocheting.

That granddaughter: her parents both worked in the vineyards, and when she was a child, she would play in my courtyard in the afternoons. When she scraped her knees bloody on the stones, she refused to cry. She would cry from frustration when the older children could do something that she couldn’t—like tie knots, or catch a chicken. Sitting on my lap, her small body shaking, her small fists striking my back slowly, one and then the other. In the evening she would perch on my courtyard wall, looking toward the vineyards, her eyes burning like candles, searching for the first glimpse of her parents coming home.

I decided not to take the knife. I did not know if I would have trouble at the checkpoints, but sane grandmothers rely on moral authority rather than force: a bitter, weak, futile weapon, but the one we can manage best. I replaced the knife with a harmonica.

Because the traveler had had fresh grapes in a bowl in her room, I started out toward the vineyards. Because there had been red ash caked in the soles of her boots, I passed through the vineyards into the somber dust of the dry country. And because a valley of giants would have to be well hidden, I left the dry country at the foothills of the snowy mountains.

I knew I was right at the checkpoint, because the soldiers who waved me through were pawing through the traveler’s sack, arguing over her silk scarves.

In the wild country of the foothills, I saw the smoke from her campfire, a loose thread of pure white in a sky the color of old linen.

Her eyes were redder than before. Her clothes were muddy, and I knew she had been thrown to the ground by the soldiers. Defending her scarves.

She tore the pack from my hands and opened it like someone ripping a bandage from a scab. She threw my things to the ground: my flatbread, my walking clothes, my canteen, my cheese. I watched her, my hands aching. When she found the harmonica, though, she began to laugh. Gently I took the pack from her hands, and I spread our things on a flat rock, while she stood and laughed with her eyes closed.

Her pallet was soft, and the skin of her back was warm.

She would not tell me what the giants were like. I wondered if they were beasts, or an army, or sages. I thought they might be dangerous—that they might tear apart my old body, eat me up with their sharp teeth. Instead of a mausoleum, an iron box, a white shroud, my grave would be a giant’s intestines. That way my body would be useful. That way, maybe, I would find release, instead of this enduring.

When we came to the pass that led to their valley, it was bitter cold. I wished I’d brought warmer things. The valley was twisting, vast, and wooded. The traveler took my hand to lead me down the trail. “Soon,” she said.

The first giant smiled when he saw us. He had a big, round belly and soft eyes too large for his face, and full lips, and shaggy brown hair like yarn. He was naked, and his stubby penis wobbled as he walked. It was the size of a kitchen stool.

There was a small dark woman sitting on his shoulders, holding on to his yarnlike hair. She was only forty-five or fifty years old, and she wore the ragged remains of a doctor’s uniform: white lab coat, black pants, flats. She peeked at us, and then hid her face in her giant’s hair.

The traveler let go of my hand and ran into the valley, calling out. A lean, red-haired giant woman with heavy breasts came out of a cave and picked her up.

I followed, watching the traveler. The giant tossed her into the air, higher than a steeple or a minaret. And caught her again. Tossed her, and caught her again. My stomach was cold with terror. If she fell from there, she would shatter. She was screaming with laughter. The giant was grinning. They did not look down at me.

I wandered into the valley. The giants looked at me curiously, ate the fruits of the trees, slept by the river. At last I stood by a giant who was sitting against a tree, looking shyly at his hands. His skin was the color of teak. His hair was black and curly. He picked me up and sat me in his lap.

The thing about the giants, is this. The reason no one wants to leave, is this. They hold you. You only need to cry or call, and strong hands as big as kitchen tables pick you up and cradle you. The giants whisper and hum, placing their great soft lips against your belly, your back. They stroke your hair, and their fingers, as big as plates, are so delicate. You fall asleep held in the crook of their arms, or on their shoulders, clinging to their hair. The giant women feed you from their breasts—great sagging breasts as large as horses, with nipples as large as pitchers. The milk is sweet and rich like crème brûlée.

When they hold you to their chests and hum, you curl your old and scarred and aching body against that great expanse of flesh and breathe, just breathe.

We have seen planes. Then there was a missile that snuck into a giant’s cave one night. One giant was sleeping in there, with three little grandmothers on her belly. The missile sought them out, in the tunnels of the cave. The ground roared and shuddered and broke. Smoke poured out of the mouth of the cave. We did not go to see what was left in there.

So they are hunting us. My friend the traveler is restless again. But I will not leave. When the planes pass over, we hide. In a cave, I nestle against my giant’s chest, bury my face in his hairs, as long as mixing spoons, as thick as blankets. I feel my granddaughter’s eyes from far away, searching, searching, hungry.