The tale of a solitary priest in the valley of death.
I have lived through many things, before and since. But if there was one truly significant, life-altering passage in the whole rotten ordeal, it was that day.
The sun came up and I stayed in my tree, transfixed by indecision. I wanted to follow the trail I had begun – to seek the source of my miraculous discovery. Of course, I could scarcely hope to find anyone alive. That rusty old mattock blade, abandoned and half-buried, spoke of death. Whoever used that tool, they had almost certainly been consumed by this dreadful maw of a valley. And yet, and yet … might there be life?
I wanted to know – wanted it desperately. But I had survived long enough in this foul place to be extremely averse to the idea of following a coffin-head’s hunting route, whatever the prize. It must have been noon before I finally made up my mind, and climbed cautiously down. If I was right, after all, the beasts would not start their hunting until near sundown. I only hoped I was right.
The blade lay where I had found it, driven into the ground by the pressure of a great foot. I scrabbled at it with trembling hands. One fretted edge nicked my thumb, and the wound in my toe gave an answering pang – I paid it no heed. Finally I unearthed the thing and, holding it ahead of me by way of self-defence, moved forward with my every sense on alert. I must have walked two hours before I reached that place, the one I now call my parish.
Now, I am not a man given to hysterics. But I am afraid to say that I made very slow progress, being prone to throwing myself up trees whenever I thought I felt some slight tremor. The ground I covered in two hours a stronger man might have managed in one. I was not strong. The pain in my foot beat time with my pounding heart, and I felt that every false alarm must be my final moment. I had not eaten or drunk – sickness came, and went, and came again – and then suddenly the trees opened before me, and there was space, endless space.
“Good Lord!” I cried, speaking aloud for the first time in weeks. “Good Lord, what is this?”
Before me was a great clearing of the sort only man could make. The ground was beaten flat, though the grass grew long and ragged over it – trees had been hewn down, and the trunks lay mouldering in orderly piles. Here and there a pole rose from the undergrowth, bound about by some parasitic creeper. There was more, and I shall tell of it presently, but at that moment I could not take it in. The main thing was that people had lived here – yes, lived, and built, and perhaps hoped to conquer.
And now – what? Green, green, savage green, and everywhere – o God! – the pallid gleam of bone.
© Alix Montague 2015