Mary, Mary, Quite Contary...
The clouds hung low, as they nearly always did, covering the mountain peak, hiding the sun. Wind whistled dry snow in swirls of fertility, and the High Priest of the Crops was pleased.
A voice called from behind the priest’s back, the words torn and distorted by the wind. The priest turned. Running, plodding towards him over the snow-packed plain, one of the villagers was calling. The priest waited, erect, dignified. The villager approached, shading his eyes against the wind-blown snow, undisciplined against its force.
“O Holy Priest of the Great Father, forgive my coming here at an Un-sacred Hour, but the Old One himself sent me and absolved me of any sin.”
The priest reassured him, speaking mildly. “Go on, faithful one.”
“We have...” The villager searched for a descriptive word in his vocabulary. “Outside ones. They have come to the village.”
The priest recalled the word of the Legends. “Visitors?” he asked. “What kind of visitors?”
“Men in suits of fur, carrying strange...instruments. Men with white faces.” His voice was hushed, filled with sudden reverence.
Controlling the swirling emotions that were urging him to race to the village like the wind itself, the priest said slowly and solemnly, “Lead me to these men. We shall see if they are the Messengers of the Prophecy.”
The Americans had not planned to make discoveries. Their expedition was to make charts and gather data. But when they came upon the village, a place listed on no map, it would have been unthinkable not to investigate.
The leader of the expedition, John Keenacks, literally stumbled on the unknown village. Keenacks was ordinarily a professor of anthropology at Columbia University, currently on leave to work for the CIA’s exploration teams in the Himalayas, thanks to his close knowledge of Indian and Chinese dialects.
He was walking along a shallow ledge when he slipped, rolled down fifty yards of sixty degree, smooth, snow-packed slope, and came to rest with his face staring at a spot a hundred yards below and in front of him, where two ledges formed a cleft a few feet wide that gave a view into a vast pocket of level ground. Through the cleft Keenacks saw, during a momentary lull in the swirling snow, at least a dozen men.
Keenacks’ four companions had already found their way down the slope to him, breathing heavily from trying to run in the thin air, by the time his mind forgot its astonishment sufficiently to examine himself for broken bones. Nothing seemed seriously hurt. With chagrin he recognized a broad bruise in his lower ribs, where the can of peaches in his pack had dug into him. The only burdensome luxury they had let him bring, he thought, and look where it got him.
He told his companions what he had seen.
“You sure it wasn’t just something—in your mind, from the fall?” asked Len Dunjohn, from the Rand Corporation. He was the other anthropologist in the expedition, also chosen for his language ability.
“No. Absolutely not. There are men down there. If they’re the enemy, we’d better find out damned fast, before they find us.”
It took them three hours to find a route down, most of it along a sheer cliff in which they left hand spikes in case they had to get back up in a hurry. They gathered together to peer through the cleft, and what they saw was a village with several dozen huts, all but one set together in the open, the other nestled protectively beneath a ledge. Men and women and children were working and playing. “Their dress looked like a scanty cloth, covering their bodies and heads but leaving their faces exposed to the cold.
There was no point in hiding. The Americans stepped forward, not knowing what to expect. Several dozen people began babbling loudly as soon as they spotted the strangers. Apparently attracted by the noise, an old man, with a long white beard exposed outside his clothing, emerged from the isolated hut. He was stooped but dignified. No one showed hostility.
Both Keenacks and Dunjohn could readily understand the language, a minor variant of a common Chinese dialect. After initial, awkward greetings, the old man, apparently the village leader, asked, “From where have you come?”
“The United States of America,” replied Keenacks.
“Where is that village?” the old man asked.
Keenacks controlled his surprise. “It is in the west, many leagues away— thousands and thousands of leagues. It is a land of many villages. White men like us inhabit that land.”
“And why are you here?”
“We—uh—stumbled upon your village, my lord.” Keenacks ventured the title without knowing what its effect would be, and the old man looked neither pleased nor displeased. “We are exploring this area, searching for—uh—new routes to China.”
“China? Is that another village?”
Keenacks looked for a moment at Dunjohn. The old man—if he could be believed—did not know of China; this village was truly isolated! What studies could be made! And, of course—what a wonderful opportunity to establish an American outpost here, once studies had been completed. There might be a little trouble with the CIA boys about holding off on setting up a base, but he’d manage.
“China is a land that lies many leagues to your east, my lord. A land of men with skin like yourself, but men, I regret to say, of evil, not of good.”
“And you, sir, are men of good, then?”
Keenacks attempted to look modestly embarrassed, not knowing if the expression would have meaning here. “We try to be, my lord. No one is perfect. But we try. We believe in freedom—uh—individual freedom, you see.” Might as well make a first inroad on them, he thought. “For example, we are pleased and honored to meet your worship, and we look forward to future meetings with you and your people. We—uh—encourage the existence of independent...villages like your own. The Chinese land, my lord, were they to learn of your existence, would wish only to enslave your people and turn you to their own use.” Damn it, he thought, how do you explain political subtleties to innocent people?
The old man spoke. “Our Legends tell of strange peoples in the world, but I must tell you, honored guest, that our village has long been isolated from the outside world, and we have only the ancient bales of the affairs of other men. We will be truly honored if you will accept our hospitality, and the use of my own hut during your stay, which I trust shall be for many days.”
Keenacks hesitated. He had a schedule to meet. Bat what the hell, he thought, this is an incredible opportunity. He bowed awkwardly in his stiff fur parka. “My countrymen and I are most honored by your offer, but we do not wish to disturb you, and we have our own living quarters with us.”
“But I insist, honored guest.”
Keenacks bowed again. “Then it would be ingracious to refuse.”
When the High Priest of the Crops arrived with the messenger, the visitors were in the Old One’s hut and the Old One was waiting in the priest’s hut. The messenger took the priest to the Old One and left them alone.
“May the snows fall on your destiny for many years,” the priest greeted his mentor.
“And may there be no cloud-gap to mar your Fields,” the Old One responded.
They sat in silence for several minutes. The priest was bursting with curiosity, but, of course, could not show it. The Old One swayed, eyes closed, thinking. Finally, he said, “I had never thought to see the Prophecy fulfilled in my lifetime.”
The priest hesitated, choosing his words carefully, wanting to avoid any chink in his outward dignity. “You believe these are the Messengers?”
“I am not sure. There is the problem of the faces and the globes. But the legends are so ambiguous. These men do speak our language, they do come dressed in fur. And they have...devices of which I have never dreamed, nor now understand.”
“But the Prophecy predicted that could happen with the false ones, too.”
“Yes, I know,” the Old One answered, slightly annoyed at being talked to like a child. “We will wait longer before giving them the final test. Perhaps they can reveal themselves in some other way, without endangering our village.”
“They are no doubt testing us as well, Old One. They cannot be sure we have not changed the ways of our ancestors.”
“Father O-Shen,” the Old One said with acidity, “though it may come as a surprise to your piety, I, too, am well familiar with the Prophecy and the Legends.”
The priest was genuinely chagrined. He respected the Old One, and wished no insults. His excitement was showing, making him think out loud.
“I am sorry, Old One,” Father O-Shen said.
The O1d One was satisfied. “You shall meet our visitors, Father. I have, of course, given them my own hut, and my waiting boy.”
Here was a chance to make amends. “Then please, Old One, take my hut and my maiden while they are here.”
The Old One etched a slight smile with his tired lips. “That is kind, Father O-Shen. But I shall only share your hut in the meantime. I am not so old that I must always be alone.” He stood up, creaking with age. “Come now, and you shall meet our visitors.”
Father O-Shen returned to his hut alone after nearly an hour with the strangers, leaving the Old One to speak with them. The High Priest of the Crops was more excited than ever. Surely these must be the ones! Their knowledge alone implied their absolute superiority, their certain relationship to the Great Father. Yet... The ways of the Evil Ones were devious. The Prophecy had warned...
It was time to tend the crops. Excitement, anticipation, must wait. Without food, even the Great Father could not save them; nay, he would curse them for their laxity. The priest went to the Fields.
“What do you think?” Dunjohn asked. Keenacks had waited for the question, now that the old man was gone and the Americans were alone. Keenacks had wanted to talk, but got pleasure from the idea that he could hold out, knowing Dunjohn would let his excitement burst through.
Keenacks remained silent. Warren Wesley, the sabotage expert and professor of geology at Harvard, responded to Dunjohn.
“It’s absolutely incredible,” Wesley said. (Obviously, thought Keenacks.) “The huts—out of some...strange material, woven, insulated. And where did these wooden supports come from? The clothing—they should all freeze, by any reasonable standards. People, completely cut off from the outside world for God knows how many centuries.”
Frank Mott was a nuclear engineer who had helped design the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons system. He interrupted, gesturing towards Keenacks and Dunjohn. “Just think of the experiments you guys could run on these people. I’ll bet they’ve never seen any kinds of weapons, for instance. We could shoot off our guns, record their reactions.”
Keenacks broke in nastily, “Come off it, Frank. That’s not very funny.” He spoke to everyone. “Look, there’s a couple of things. First, this is a great subject for study...”
“You’ll make a mint writing about it, you mean,” Mott put in sarcastically
Keenacks ignored him, “The other thing is the strategic value. The secret of their clothing alone would give troops new maneuverability in cold weather! And the Chinese have no idea this place exists. If we can make an alliance, maybe bring in some modern stuff—machines, guarantee them regular shipments of food, for example; it must be incredibly hard to make do here—”
“They certainly looked well enough fed, though,” put in George Liebowitz, the biologist, who experimented alternately with minimal human survival needs and bacteriological warfare at his position as research fellow at the University of California at Berkeley. “Might give me some excellent leads.”
“You’ll find that people adjust to their environment, whatever it is, and live remarkably well wherever they are,” interposed Dunjohn, with a little haughtiness.
Keenacks said, “You’re all missing the main point. This is a major find, and we’ve got to decide what to do. I hate like hell to hang around here for days, but I’m not sure we really have any choice.”
Someone shuffled in the door; these people, Keenacks had already decided, had an annoying custom of not respecting privacy, just walking in on you without warning. The villager, a boy not more than fifteen, said, “Masters, we have prepared some food for you, if you would care to partake.”
Keenacks spoke for the rest. They were all hungry—and breaking bread was a universal sign of friendship. Besides, even the food of an isolated mountain village should be better than the rations and dried out nutrients they’d been eating for several days. “Thank you very much. We would be honored.”
Keenacks translated to the others. The boy went out and brought back a tray with wooden spoons, bowls, and a large pot of steaming broth. He disappeared, and Keenacks was about to serve the broth, when the boy came back with a bowl full of something that looked like fruit. Taking the serving spoon from Keenacks (who was interested in the wooden handle, which was intricately carved in a design that represented two lovers in a pose that could well have been from the Kama Sutra), the boy proceeded to dole out helpings and pass the bowls around.
Meanwhile, Liebowitz, the biologist, had stood up, walked to the second large bowl the boy had brought in, and squatted next to it. He reached for one of the objects in it, but Keenacks hissed at him, “Don’t touch it, George!” Liebowitz’s hand snapped back. Keenacks went on in a calmer voice. “Didn’t mean to scare you—just don’t want to break protocol, you understand. The boy seems to serve things, and there’s no telling what insult we’d be making if we didn’t let him.”
Liebowitz walked over and sat next to Keenacks. The biologist whispered, “That is fresh fruit the boy brought in, John! Fresh fruit!” He realized there was no point in whispering, since the boy surely spoke no English. Liebowitz looked at the others and said aloud, “Somehow, they’ve got contact with the outside world. They must! They’ve got fresh fruit—oranges and bananas!”
Wesley spoke, worried and tense. “But that means they’re lying to us! They must be in cahoots with the Reds! This is all some sort of trap.”
Everyone was silent for several moments. The boy had finished doling the soup; a steaming bowl sat in front of each man. They were all hungry, but none touched his soup.
Mott said to Liebowitz, “George, do you suppose the soup’s poisoned?”
Liebowitz picked up his bowl and sniffed at it. “Smells all right to me. I don’t know. Seems like damned good broth.” He fished his spoon around in the liquid, lifted out a large chunk of something. He blew on the spoon, picked up the object with his fingers, wincing a little at the heat. He held it to his nose, easily squashed it with his fingers, touched it to his tongue.
“I’ll be damned!” he exclaimed, after a tense silence as he rolled the morsel around on his tongue. “It’s a potato!” He paused while the others looked at each other and at the boy, who was standing to one side, looking confused and upset. Liebowitz said, “But I suppose they might have developed some especially hearty strain up here, in some cave... Not very likely...”
Mott commented dryly, “Perhaps we should call our tribe the Abdominal Snow Men.”
The boy coughed a moment, then spoke to Keenacks, whom he had apparently identified as the strangers’ leader. “Pardon me, Sire. We are only simple villagers here. We do not know your customs. Should I withdraw the spoons? If their use is taboo in your village, please do not be angry with an ignorant boy.”
Dunjohn, the only one besides Keenacks who understood, laughed uncontrollably. That, thought Keenacks, is what makes him an inferior anthropologist, his inability to remain unruffled before cultural diversity. Without translating anything for the others, Keenacks solemnly said to the boy, “It is not taboo with us.” He gestured toward Liebowitz. “This man is only our food tester, a kind of doctor who studies food in this manner.”
The boy nodded and bowed” “We call that a potato, Sire. Have you never seen one before?”
Keenacks chuckled and said, “Yes, but our doctor always checks. It is Our Way.” He paused, then said to the boy, “You may leave us, if you desire.” The boy hesitated, looking a little hurt. This must be a great opportunity for him, Keenacks thought. What stories he’ll have to tell his friends about his adventures with the foreigners! But Keenacks wanted to be alone with the others.
“As you wish, Sire,” the boy finally said. He bowed again and exited. Dunjohn was still giggling.
“What’s he laughing at?” asked Mott.
Keenacks explained, and the others laughed, too. Keenacks repressed the urge to giggle. The others, at least, he thought, can’t be blamed for laughing; Dunjohn should know better, though, the stupid bastard. But to the matter of the fresh fruit.
“You say the—uh—doctor seemed to recognize the food?” asked the Old One.
The boy was not allowed to look the Old One in the face, but he longed to see the Old One’s expression. Surely the Prophecy was being fulfilled! “I...think so, Venerable Father.”
The priest paced the hut to one side of the boy and the Old One. He could not hide his excitement. “It makes sense,” he mused aloud. “If they were coming to test us, they would have some expert, who could not be fooled by a false crop.”
“The Evil Ones might do the same, Father O-Shen,” the Old One observed.
The priest stopped-pacing and spoke with an agitated voice. “I know, I know, Old One. But why go to all the trouble? Why not ask, right out? That would be in keeping with their nature!”
The Old One smiled. “Exactly, Father O-Shen. They would be crafty enough to realize we would think that. Evil often deceives us. The Evil Ones would do everything in their power to convince us they were the true Messengers.”
The priest realized this before the Old One had spoken. But Father O-Shen wanted to believe. He had an idea. “Then why not peel the corn on their own stalks, Old One? Why do we not force the visitors to reveal themselves one way or the other?”
“You are impatient, my Son.”
“Who knows what damage they might work, if they are the Evil Ones, unless we uncover them in time? We have nothing to lose by acting now.”
The Old One was silent. For many minutes he sat, brooding. The boy stood still, frightened without being certain why. Father O-Shen paced. Finally, the Old One spoke.
“Perhaps you are right, Father. At evening prayers in the fields, we shall tell the people, that they may be prepared for what is to come.”
Keenacks left the hut alone about five o’clock to find the old man. He and his companions had discussed things, and had decided they had no choice but to force the villagers to tell them where the fruit had come from. If the Reds were in back of all this, the Americans had better get the hell back to home base.
No one was around. Keenacks knocked at several huts, walked into a few of them, found no one. A creepy feeling ran through him. Perhaps I should warn the others, he thought. He turned to go back to his hut, when his eye caught movement on the horizon, a human figure moving away from the village at the crest of the expanse of snow. He hurried after it as fast as he could in a heavy parka, plowing through deep snow.
Despite his difficulty at breathing—which never seemed to happen to the villagers, he thought—he managed to keep the figure in sight. Several hundred yards separated them. Suddenly Keenacks glimpsed a line of heads which the man he was following had joined. Keenacks bent low, continued forward. The crowd was not moving, all of the people facing away from him. Why they should be standing in the middle of nowhere, in a huge plain of snow with the wind whipping the stuff all over the place, he couldn’t figure. With frustration, he realized the plain gave him no place to sneak up and observe.
He circled around, keeping low. On the whistling wind came the intonation of sounds he could not make out, but he recognized a chant-like quality akin to Indian religious music. When he was off to one side, a few hundred yards from the path the crowd would follow if it went straight back to the village, he hollowed a small pit in the snow and lay flat in it. When the villagers went home, he would go to where they had been standing.
The priest intoned the evening prayer, standing on the Sacred Mound. One tenth of all the crops were always set aside for the Great Father’s Mound. The life-giving Sacred Smell pungently filled his nostrils. The wind carried it in weaker doses to the worshippers. Not even the Old One was blessed with getting so close to the Sacred Smell.
“O Great Father of the Snows,” Father O-Shen chanted to the clouds, “deliver us from the Evil Ones. Look with favor upon us now and in all future days. Keep thy clouds above us. Bring us blizzards, that our crops may flourish. Hide forever from us that glowing Instrument of Evil that shines beyond thy clouds, threatening us, longing to fuse our offerings, to cut off the Sacred Smell, to stop the wind and melt the fertile snow and kill our crops. Look upon us, Great Father, and witness thy faithful, who believe with all their hearts in thy truth and virtue.”
He stopped. The worshippers stood in silence, staring past him at the wind-blown snow concealing the fields of potatoes and carrots and cabbage and corn, the orchards of apple trees and orange trees, and the banana groves. In generations gone by, dozens more crops had flourished. In their own time, the villagers had seen the last tomato plant die out, and they had bitter, scarred memories of the horror that came in seeking out and sacrificing the Unbeliever in their midst.
Legends abounded with tales of long-lost food plants: pomegranates and dates, particular delicacies; sugar, with which villagers of past ages had flavored their hot water as the present villagers used orange peelings; radishes and rice, one used as a spice, the other for a long time the staple of the diet, now replaced by potatoes. The Old One could even remember having tasted a peach in the village. The crops were not only the food of the village; the plant fibers made clothing, material for the huts, ropes—innumerable implements and toys.
The priest turned to face the fields after the prescribed silence. “O Incarnation of the Great Father of the Snows,” he called, his voice as loud as possible. “We have visitors who will come to see you, Sustenance of our Lives.” The priest could imagine the worshippers’ faces, showing eagerness at finally hearing news about the strangers; he could also imagine the impassivity, perhaps even worry, on the face of the Old One.
“We shall do all in our power to assure the visitors are from the Great Father. Meanwhile, O Life-giving Forces, deepen your roots, stretch higher your leaves and branches, that we may continue to prosper regardless of who are our visitors. And if the Prophecy is fulfilled, and our Garden of Old is restored, your roots and stems shall rejoice no more than the hearts of those whom you serve and who serve you!”
He bowed his head and prayed. The worshippers followed suit, but their prayers were mixed with excited thoughts. They might actually be alive to see the fulfillment of the Prophecy! They might taste of peaches or sugar, alternate rice with potatoes! Who knew what taste delights they might soon be able to experience! It was like a dream!
The priest raised his head. The worshippers formed a single file three hundred yards long and led the Old One and the High Priest of the Crops back to the village.
When the priest and the others were out of sight, Keenacks stood up, bending low, and hurried forward. In a few minutes he was where the worshippers had stood. As he approached, he saw a mound several feet in diameter, covered with snow, though no snow blew within yards of it. A stench of rotting food reached him, and before he could gain control of himself, he had retched, barely able to bend over and pull the parka away from his mouth, letting the green vomit plop into the snow, forming a large, frozen puddle.
He took several hurried steps backwards, wiping snow over his mouth to get rid of the drippings that stuck there. He pulled the parka back over his face, afraid of frostbite. His eyes studied the mound, his nose still picking up stray whiffs of the nauseating odor, but he was under control now—barely. Still, for the time being, he didn’t want to get any closer to what his mind insisted on labeling a garbage heap.
He lifted his eyes and looked beyond the mound. Ahead, the snow swirled more viciously than anywhere else. He peered through it, seeing a vague, darkened mass at the end of his vision. The sunlight that reflected through the clouds was diminishing. Circling around the mound, he moved forward, into the swirl.
He was almost in the middle of the first crop—cabbage—before he realized what was happening. His mind refused to believe what his eyes saw. Here cabbage; a little further…short green stems sticking from the ground, then the twisting, ghostly shapes of trees and stalks of—corn. Against his will, his long-denied palate began to salivate. He stumbled forward.
Slowly, he forced his mind to orient to the situation. There’s always an explanation, he reminded himself. He came to the field of corn, tore off an ear, peeled its tip. It certainly looked like real corn, a foodstuff, he recalled that most of the world outside America considered fit only for swine. He pulled on one of the stems sticking from the ground: a carrot.
He couldn’t figure it out. He was terrified. Something was obviously wrong. A plot of the Chinese? It must be. But what was it all about? He ran, as well as he could, straight back to the village and his companions. He barely remembered to stop running when he came in sight of the villagers.
Only Liebowitz, the biologist, was in the hut when Keenacks arrived; the others were out looking around. Keenacks, gasping for breath, garbled out what he had seen, Liebowitz put his hand to Keenacks’ forehead.
“You’re sure you saw all this?” Liebowitz asked.
“Of course I’m sure!” Keenacks screamed at him. Liebowitz hesitated, withdrawing his hand. He was a realistic man, but also had a flexible mind. Fruit and vegetables obviously couldn’t grow in snow—but that didn’t mean Keenacks hadn’t seen fruit and vegetables, whatever the real explanation.
“Show me,” he said. He put on his parka and went outside. Keenacks started walking straight for the fields. Liebowitz grabbed his arm. “No, you fool! Go off to the left, until we’re out of sight of the village. If it’s something we’re not supposed to know about, we don’t want to broadcast where we’re going.”
Liebowitz’s caution made them take twenty minutes getting back to the fields, and for awhile Keenacks was afraid they were lost. The stench finally gave the place away.
Keenacks stayed away from the mound, but Liebowitz went right up to it, kicked at it, dug into it with his gloved hands. Keenacks could see him squatting, shaking his head as he examined the contents, crumbling them and running them through his fingers close to his eyes.
Liebowitz came back. “It’s compost,” he said. “Dead fruit and vegetables. Oranges, bananas, corn, potatoes. Maybe a few other things. It’s been rotting for weeks.” He wrinkled up his nose. “Pretty strong smell, huh?”
Keenacks nodded without smiling. “Let me show you the crops,” he said. They walked forward to the fields. Liebowitz whistled in awe inside his face covering. He walked among the plants, pulling up potatoes and carrots, holding them close so he could study them.
“John!” he called. Keenacks had been standing at the edge of the garden (as his mind tried not to call it), somehow leery of re-venturing inside. He came forward now. Liebowitz held up three carrots he had picked.
“Look at these! They’re rotting!” He held up a potato, blackened and soft beneath his fingers. “This, too.” He went to the corn, calling to Keenacks. “Look at how yellow the stalks are. They’re dying.” He ran to the orchard trees. Keenacks hadn’t moved. “There are apples and oranges all over the ground!” Liebowitz shouted. “These trees are nearly dead!”
Keenacks went forward now, a terrible sense of foreboding in him. “George, this is impossible. I’ll admit I was pretty upset before, but I swear that corn field was as green as could be!” He looked around, squinting into the wind. “Now the whole place is yellow and dying!”
Liebowitz said nothing. He was forming a theory—a plausible explanation for seemingly impossible events. But he wanted to think about it a little longer.
“Let’s go back to the hut and tell the others, “ he said.
“It is strange our leader did not find you,” Dunjohn was saying to the Old One and the priest. “He has been gone a half hour and nobody has seen him.”
Father O-Shen said nothing, but overwhelming fear swept him. He looked at the Old One, and for the first time that he could remember, he saw fear and worry on his mentor’s face.
“Excuse me, please,” the priest said abruptly, and hurried out of his hut. He ran towards the fields, not caring that the other villagers should see him frenzied. If things turned out well… He could say the spirit of the Great Father had entered into him, compelling him. And in a very real sense, that was absolutely true.
As he ran through the village, heads turned in wonderment, and several young girls cast their eyes to the ground at the unheard spectacle of the High Priest of the Crops, running. In the plain before the fields, only snow and wind joined Father O-Shen’s mad dash.
He tried to reassure himself as he ran. After all, if they had found the Fields, perhaps the millennium had come. Perhaps these were the Messengers of the Great Father, perhaps in a few minutes he would look upon pomegranates and dates and the dozens of other legendary crops, the taste and touch and look of which his mind had so often tried to imagine. But the spirit of fear was in him, and as the High Priest, he would feel no fear without good cause.
He saw first the Sacred Mound, clearly defiled. His nostrils searched wildly for the Sacred Smell, but caught only a glimmer of it. His heart hurt. The Mound was fusing, becoming a lifeless, odorless heap. Nearby, he saw a green stain in the snow—the legendary mark of the Evil Ones.
He raced on, and even from afar, with the snow blowing straight in his eyes so that he could barely keep them open as he ran, he saw the fields were not the same—and the change was bad. Gasping for breath, he stopped running, pulled up a potato, felt it turn to liquid in his hand. He glanced at the other crops, but did not go to them. Their fate was obvious. He had no time even to see if anything might still live. He turned towards the village and raced back, despairing, envisioning the village’s imminent extermination. The Evil Ones must be sacrificed without delay.
“The priest? He dashed out of his hut a couple of minutes ago. That’s when the old man asked me to leave. Why? What’s up?” Dun John, was speaking to Keenacks. The Americans were all together in their hut.
Liebowitz told them what he and Keenacks had seen.
“Sure you didn’t sneak some of that booze we’ve got?” Dunjohn asked.
Liebowitz looked at him with contempt and ignored the taunt. “Look, we may not have much time. The priest—or whoever he is—may be on to us. I’ve tried to figure out what’s going on, and here’s the only thing I can see. The Chinese Reds must have set all this up—spent a fortune bringing in live plants, setting them in the snow somehow, so we’d think they were real. They must have counted on the refrigeration to keep the plants from decaying too fast.”
“Wait a minute!” interrupted Dunjohn. “Why the hell would they go to all that trouble?”
“I’m not sure. Perhaps they got wind of what we were doing, and…”
Mott, the nuclear engineer broke in. “There’s only one possible explanation. The Chinese must have a nuclear center here, built right into the mountain, under the ground. Maybe rigged up some way of saving the heat, channeling it, using it to raise the crops, be self-sufficient...”
Liebowitz snorted. “And what about the snow? Huh? How’re they going to preserve freezing snow on some kind of fancily irrigated, heated farm land, tell me.”
“And why have the fields at all, to look at your ridiculous explanation,” retorted Mott.
“Damn it, there’s got to be a reason,” Keenacks put in. “And we’ve got to report back, at any rate, so our people will know and we can start finding out what it’s all about. One of us has to get out of here right away, before they’re on to us.” He looked at Dunjohn. “No chance for radio communication, I suppose?”
“Not a chance. Couldn’t risk being monitored by the Reds, anyway.”
Wesley was digging through his pack and found his pistol. He checked to see it was loaded. “I’ll go, okay? I know these mountains best, I think.” No one disagreed. Wesley went to the door, peered out, then stepped forward as calmly as he could, starting to head in the direction the American party had first entered the village. He took two steps and saw the priest racing towards him, calling to other villagers, who were stopping their work, listening, turning, starting to run towards Wesley and the hut.
Wesley flicked off the automatic on his revolver, screamed to the others to defend themselves, aimed and pulled the trigger. A moment later, the priest fell forward on his face. The villagers stopped, still fifty yards away. Wesley froze, unable to shoot again, not knowing what to do next. A low, rumbling sound began, subsided, recurred. The other Americans were coming out of the hut, guns in hand, lining up before the entrance in preparation to running off together, abandoning all their equipment.
The rumbling grew louder. The crowd was looking up, backing off. The old man and the fifteen year old boy who had served the Americans each held an arm of the priest and were dragging him backwards. Large chunks of snow fell near the Americans; one hit Wesley in the back and knocked him down. The explorers looked up. An avalanche was falling on them. A small avalanche, not large but enough to kill them all. The Americans screamed, started to run. It was too late.
Father O-Shen recovered consciousness and realized he was in his own hut. The Old One and the Doctor were standing over him. “I...am...still alive?” the priest asked The Old One smiled broadly. “Surely you do not think the Home of the Great Father looks like your own hut?”
The priest smiled back, then winced at the pain in his shoulder. The Doctor spoke. “They thrust a small piece of hard, rock-like material into your arm, Holy One. With the benediction of the Old One, I dared to touch your Sacredness and remove the substance. I believe no true harm has come to you. The bleeding stopped long ago.”
Father O-Shen, remembering now, pushed himself up on his hands. “But the Evil Qnes! And the Fields! I must go and see! We may all be starved!”
The Old One told of the avalanche, then looked at the Doctor and asked, “May he move?”
“I would advise against it.”
Father O-Shen snapped angrily, “You know neither of you can keep me from going. I am the only one who can judge the Fields.” He paused, then spoke more calmly. “I shall allow both of you to come with me, if you wish, to help me.”
He stood up. They helped him walk. His legs were fine, but he felt weak from the shock. When they left the hut, he looked towards the mound of snow that had been the Old One’s hut.
“They were all buried there?” he asked.
“Yes,” replied the Old One. “And you know a self-sacrifice is greater than the priest’s knife.”
Father O-Shen nodded. He was walking on his own now. “I am sorry your Burial hut has been destroyed, Old One,” he said. “I shall see the villagers build a new one at a suitable point on the ledge, where we can prepare the snow especially heavily, and in a manner that your Death Shout need not be too loud. I shall consecrate the ground swiftly.”
“Save your strength, Father O-Shen,” the Old One smiled. They walked on and the villagers, fearful but intensely curious, followed at a judicious distance. Father O-Shen felt guilty for not being as worried as he should be, but he knew the self-sacrifice of the five Evil Ones, with the added fortune that they were buried in the ground reserved for the Old One (and would perhaps make the most famous Burial Place in the village’s history, linking the priest’s reign with glory), had greatly improved the chances for the survival of the village.
When they reached the Sacred Mound, Father O-Shen went into the fields alone. He was greatly disheartened. Death and decay were everywhere. He had never imagined such wide-spread damage, almost as if the Great Father had held the clouds back and let the sun shine through for hundreds of days on end. But the damage was not permanent. The village would have to ration its food for less than a tenth of a lifetime, but some of every crop had survived. A harvest would soon be made. Most of it would have to go for new planting now, but with the supplies on hand and what could safely be eaten of the harvest, food could be rationed so that none would starve.
Father O-Shen breathed a sigh of intense relief. He sat down in the snow, feeling guilty for not going at once to reassure the others, but needing the rest. His shoulder was throbbing, and he was very tired.
He thought back over the Legends and the Prophecy. Hundreds of lifetimes ago, the Great Father had created the Village, and had sent his Messengers. Each legend described the Messengers slightly differently, but most agreed that they came in suits of heavy fur, with strange, transparent globes hiding their heads.
The Messengers had planted the crops—the old crops, the First Garden, where all of the Great Father’s variety was made manifest. The Messengers taught about the Great Father of the Snows. They explained that only so long as the villagers had faith would the crops thrive. From time to time, they warned, a villager would grow up who doubted the existence of the Great Father of the Snows, who refused to believe in the divine fertility of the snows. The withering of a crop was evidence of an Unbeliever, and the villagers would conduct a search at the first bad sign. The Unbeliever always confessed, and was sacrificed, on rare occasions even repenting sufficiently to commit self-sacrifice. The dead ground would be re-consecrated and the remaining crops would be expanded to keep the food supply constant, just as the population of the village had been kept carefully constant over the centuries—that was part of the Old One’s job.
And the Prophecy had told of the eventual re-coming of the Messengers, when the Garden would be returned to its first glory. But the Prophecy had also warned of the appearance of false messengers, disguised as true ones. As soon as such visitors saw the crops they would disbelieve, so that the fields would be ravaged in a very short time.
Father O-Shen smiled. The story of this day would be recorded in memory by every villager, passed on to all descendants, so should more Evil Ones come, the villagers would be prepared, would commit the sacrifices at once. Men in white skin, wearing fur clothing, carrying strange mechanical devices...
He stood up, walked back to his people. He poured several handfuls of snow on the Sacred Mound, re-consecrated it. Already, he could tell, the Sacred Smell was returning. With his foot, he shoveled snow on the patch of blasphemous green nearby.
He stood on the Mound. He spoke to the people, explaining what had happened. While he was talking, he noticed from the corner of his eye that a small girl, no more than ten, was tugging at the Old One’s arm—too young to know fear, he thought. She handed something to the Old One, and for the second time that day, and the second time in his life, Father O-Shen saw intense emotion on the Old One’s face, a look of astonishment. For the second time that day, the villagers saw Father O-Shen act undignified. He stopped in the middle of his sentence, walked to the Old One. They whispered to each other. Father O-Shen showed astonishment. He returned to the Sacred Mound.
“O my people!” he intoned. “Let us pray to the Great Father of the Snows, truly the Greatest Spirit in the Universe. It has with final truth been said in the Legends, the Great Father can bring Good from Evil, that we might not despair when Evil is upon us.”
He paused, an emotion of overwhelming sadness and joy mixing in him. Behind his back, he heard the wind building to a high-pitched fury of fertility. “Little Shonu, one of our Innocents, has just come from the village with a sprig that has grown over the Burial Mound of the Evil Ones. There are many more like it, she says, and some of other forms. The Old One has recognized this particular growth, which none of us ever thought to see.” He paused again, almost weeping.
“It is the bud of a peach tree.”
I didn't remember writing this story when I found it among old papers, but as I reviewed it, it rang a bell.
Aside from proof-reading the scanned pages, I have made only two changes (two matching words) to this story to correct an inconsistency whichI missed when I wrote this over 40 years ago.
While I find some of the writing and plotting in this story good, I find it also riddled with problems that I don't have the patience to fix. Most glaringly, this is a science fiction story that depends on plot rather than character, a problem I didn't understand at the time, and the characters are pretty one-dimensional. I also over-write, too often telling rather than showing, hitting the reader over the head with some of the back story of the village, and using descriptive terms, especially adverbs, unnecessarily. So I don't know if anyone will ever read this, though my grandchildren may be curious at some point at how I wrote as a young man.
I do find the story interesting for what it says about my thinking at the age of 23 or 24. (It is hard not to be condescending to my former self...) I can see I was influenced by the story of Shangri-La (which I never read; but I'd seen the movie), American paranoia about communism, cultural relativism/anthropology (though, to my regret, I never formally studied it), and Milton (at least the reference to Good coming from Evil). I am also intrigued that I did not make the mountain group perfect; at least, I assume that the idea of sacrificing dissenters for the greater good would have offended me then as it does now. Certainly I remember being very conscious of my own role as a maverick and my hatred of abusing people who buckedpopular thought.