The Sleeping God
by Richard Ong
|part 4 of 5|
For three days and nights the two unlikely companions traveled on foot around the mountain. For three days and nights the specter of an eruption from an angry god bore down on them. It gave them the strength to move, in spite of the old man’s rapidly dwindling supply of food meant for a traveler of one.
In the fourth morning of their journey, they lost the path. Julio fretted that they might need to retrace their steps towards the angry mountain.
Ghotta grabbed hold of the boy’s shoulders and whirled him around in anger. “Don’t be stupid, little prince. You start running back to where we came from and your beloved Paz is sure to belch up something nasty this time and bury you in boiling mud, and then what hope would there be for your grandfather, huh?”
Ghotta released the boy’s shoulders and sighed. He gently lifted the young de la Cruz’s chin and wiped the tears from his eyes. “Listen to me. We’ve been together for over three days and we ought to have more faith in one another by now. So, do you trust me little prince? Nod if you do.”
Julio nodded and swallowed hard.
“Good. Because what I’m about to tell you will hopefully make you understand why I left in defiance of the king and in peril of my soul ten years ago.”
Ghotta gripped Julio’s shoulders once again, though gently this time, and turned him around towards the western horizon with the mountain behind their backs. “Look over there and tell me what you see.”
Julio was uncertain of what he was expected to find. “What is it?”
“Look beyond the valley towards that dry river bed. See those trees on the opposite side of the river bed?”
Julio saw them and was amazed at how lush they were — all green and vibrant, the tree trunks showed a wide variety of shades of red and brown. They all looked just the way he imagined they’d be like back home where the crops flourished from the rich life-giving soil, but taller and obviously older. Very few trees at his village were barely more than ten years old.
“Exactly what I’m trying to tell you, little prince. Them trees over there looked too perfect for my taste, unspoiled, untouched and...” Ghotta shivered, if there ever was anything possible that could make him feel afraid, this did.
“... unchanged,” he finished. “Did you ever speculate what the path really is, little prince? No, I don’t mean its being the footprints of Paz as told in the holy book. I mean, look at that dried-up river bed and tell me what else do you see, now that the fog has lifted?”
Julio, at first, saw nothing out of the ordinary other than the bits and pieces of loose rocks and sand that lined the otherwise smooth surface of the small channel. Then suddenly, a thin shaft of sunlight peeking through the clouds reflected off something from the river bed. Another shaft of light revealed the sparkle of something that looked like black crystal.
“It’s the path! The path leads through the river! So we haven’t lost it after all, Ghotta.”
“No, we never did. But it sure doesn’t look like any sort of trail any more, now does it, my little prince? As a matter of fact, all scattered like that, it looked more like something that was thrown about from afar, like say...” he turned around and pointed straight up. “Yonder mountain over there maybe?”
“I don’t understand,” said Julio, though in truth, he was beginning to suspect that Ghotta knew more than he was letting on.
Ghotta chuckled and simply shook his head. He turned back to face the trees beyond the river bed and said, “Did you ever wonder why Paz, our all-powerful and vindictive god, left all those beautiful trees untouched? Why, there’s not even a single sign of scorching on the grass at the edge of the river. Isn’t that some peculiarly odd miracle, wouldn’t you say?”
Julio shivered and said, “You shouldn’t be talking about such things, Ghotta. I know that you don’t care about our god and I’m starting to question some of the stories that I’ve been told from the holy book, especially when a good man like my grandfather is dying... but I still respect Paz. I still pray to him even if only to keep me alive long enough to find help from the outside.”
“My dear little prince. How young and naive you are! I may be a lot of things but I do not purposely set out to lead little boys astray from what they believe in. But even you have to admit, if you will only open your eyes, that those things...” he pointed at the trees, “cannot be real.”
“Ghotta, you’re scaring me.”
“You should be scared. Nonetheless, beyond the river bed lies the answer.”
“The answer to what?”
Julio looked at the old man when he didn’t reply. Ghotta sank down and sat on the hillside and rubbed his wrinkled forehead with his fingers. He moaned and then started to cry. Julio tugged at his sleeve and Ghotta turned to stare at the boy. His eyes had lost their color. Only the whites on them remained.
Julio recoiled in horror. His breathing quickened as he dragged himself away from the old man. Ghotta gave him a long, sightless stare. His mouth slowly opened as if to speak and the earth began to tremble once again. Julio looked up and felt the beating of his heart increase uncontrollably. The sky darkened. Through the clouds he saw the jagged peak of the mountain shudder. Black smoke rising from its peak gave way to a fountain of fire. Rocks exploded from the top and rained down on the valley where they sat. His clothes were suddenly covered in blackened dust and he found the air difficult to breathe.
Ghotta shouted. “The sleeping god is awake! You must hurry and run down the hill, across the river bed and through the forest beyond. There you will find the answer to the question that everyone in the village had been secretly asking themselves in their sleep. It is the same question, to which even the king himself had no answer: ‘Is there nothing more to our existence? Is this all we’ll ever be?’”
“I don’t understand!” Julio shouted back. His ears ached from the deafening noise of the exploding mountain. His throat felt dry and he began to cough uncontrollably.
“Here, take this.” Ghotta shoved something small to his face. His eyes watering, Julio could barely see what it was. A gust of fresh air suddenly filled his lungs and his eyes cleared. He found his face encased in something clear like a solid bubble. Julio began to panic and started clawing at his face. His frantic movements were stopped when he found his wrist locked in a grip so strong that it hurt. Ghotta stared at him through the bubble. His eyes regained their colors of brown and black.
“I want you to listen to me very carefully, little prince, for our time is very short. Paz has awakened after ten years. He will rain destruction everywhere, as it is his function. Mine is to ensure that everyone in the village stays exactly where they are. But I grew weary over time.
“Over the last hundred years I realized that man could never grow unless we undo these shackles we imposed on him. Ten years ago I made my move. I wasn’t alone. My wife felt the same way as I did and we both set about a course of action that would liberate our people from the tyranny of Paz.
“How naive we were! My wife was stricken ill by a disease that none of our healers could detect. So I set out in search of a cure outside and became an outcast. Now, another one of us has fallen to this illness. You know whom I speak of.”
Julio could not believe what he was hearing. For a moment, he had forgotten the horror that exploded all around him as he listened in disbelief at the sacrilege of the man who had become his friend over the past few days. Worse still was the implied message that someone close to him was equally involved in the plot. “Grandfather?” he whispered.
“Yes. The enmity between us was a ruse both to confuse those who sought to imprison us and to stir our people into action. Your being here with me is no accident. Even Lucinda knew of your coming.”
“Lucinda? Lucinda knows about this?”
“She is my ‘daughter’. When her mother fell ill, she knew that it was only a matter of time. She knew the truth of our imprisonment. The only way for her to get close to the elders was to marry the king and learn all of our secrets. Now the king is ill and will most likely share the fate of my wife.”
“No! My grandfather will not die. I will find help. I swear I will!” Julio’s eyes began to blur and Ghotta’s face softened and stroked the young boy on his chin.
“My dear, dear Julio. Your grandfather and I already sealed our fate the moment we discovered who and what we truly are.” Ghotta unrolled the sleeve of his shirt on his right arm. Where his skin and hair would normally have been, Julio saw a collection of rods and tiny wheels that turned like the innards of a clock. A hum and a warm glow of light pulsated from Ghotta’s arm. Julio stepped back and stumbled away from the old man.
“Paz preserve me! What kind of a man are you?”
“This is what I am, little prince. It is what I’ve always been. Your grandfather, a few others and I were placed long ago among the first of your people to observe and ensure that everyone stays within the village. But something went wrong. We stopped receiving messages from the outside.” Ghotta pointed towards the direction beyond the dry river bed. “I don’t know why. The moment I stepped out of the village gates, my head began to clear for the first time. That’s when I realized what I really am and what I could never be. Human, like you.”
“But Lucinda and your wife, sir. A-are they also..?” Julio stammered.
“Lucinda was the true daughter of some donor of whom I have no records — except that he was from the outside world. Perhaps you may be able to meet him if you make it through those trees. I know I can’t. I’ve tried over the past ten years to try and break free but something built inside me compels me to stay and I have no choice but to obey.”
“And what about... what about me? If grandfather is... is like you, then what does that make me? I know I am not like you, Ghotta. I can’t be! I hurt too much and I bleed!”
“Calm down, little prince! You are quite human, I assure you. Your real grandfather, if he is still alive, is somewhere out there. Beyond that, I cannot say. But the king, well... let’s just say that I believe he was taken ill by the very same thing that killed my wife. Something deadly was implanted long ago and slept within each of the elders until summoned to do its deed.”
Ghotta stood and lifted Julio up to his feet. “Over the years as I explored the boundaries of this tiny world, I have studied, waited and prepared for someone — a person such as you — to find the courage to escape from the village. I have discovered some equipment left behind by those who built this place a century ago. The mask that you wear will help you to breathe long enough, I pray, until you reach the forest beyond the river bed.”
“Ghotta, I’m afraid. I’m afraid and so confused. Why won’t you come with me? Why won’t you try?”
“I wish I could. And I’m truly sorry, little prince, for what I am about to do, for I fear we’ve run out of time.” Ghotta suddenly grabbed the little boy by the collar and hurled him head first towards the bottom of the slope.
Julio’s body rolled and tumbled end over end, scraping and cutting his arms on the rocks until he hit the bottom of the river bed below. He cried and tears rolled down his cheeks when he leaned over one arm. The pain that shot up from his elbow was excruciating. Through the stinging haze he saw the mountaintop explode and he instinctively covered his head with his good arm and mumbled for Paz to spare his life.
When he opened his eyes he saw several shadowy figures bent over him. There was a crack on his mask and smoke was coming in through the opening. His lungs began to ache and he would later remember the sense of being lifted by several hands. He tried to struggle and he felt something sharp sting him on one arm. Someone took off his mask and he felt a tingling sensation all over his body and then the pain on his arm was no more. He felt a sudden calm come over him and a sleepiness born of fatigue and maybe something more...
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Copyright © 2011 by Richard Ong