Monday, April 25, 2005

 

the child, fifty-four


They stood at the top, surveying the long, nasty slope that dropped steeply away to the valley floor far below them. Ugh! Starr shuddered. This way looked now every bit as rugged and ugly as she remembered it from the last time the company had passed this way.

She really did not want to go down this slope again.

'Something wrong?' Stone asked, wrapping an arm round her shoulder and drawing her close.

'I just don't want to wind up taking another tumble down this slope,' she said.

'Another? What do you mean, another?' Stone asked as the two of them started the descent. They were, as they often were anymore, the tail end of the group. The others were already picking their way down ahead of them.

'That tumble I took,' she replied. 'When I fell and skinned my leg so badly. That was here.'

'That was here?' Stone echoed. He stopped and looked over the slope again, then turned to Starr. 'What do you mean, Starr? We passed that place long ago. Unless...' And a sickly light dawned in his eyes. 'Oh... no...' he groaned. 'We aren't, are we? Going in...'

'Circles, yes.'

Stone winced his eyes shut. 'Circles! You mean all this time that we've been going through this valley, we've just been going round and round the same mountain?'

'Yes,' she whispered. He was really taking this news very badly.

'How many times?'

'I lost count.'

'How come you never told me before?'

'I... forgot.' She cast down her eyes miserably.

He sighed. And then, to her surprise, he began to chuckle. 'Oh, Starr-my-girl. You and your memory! No, it's all right; I'm not mad. It's just... Man! Circling!'

She nodded.

'Well. At least you noticed it,' he added. 'That's more than I did.'

She started to reply that she had never noticed either till Maccabees had pointed it out to her. But then she thought that perhaps it wouldn't be such a good idea to bring up Maccabees. Not just yet.

So she said nothing.

Stone took her hand and started easing their way down the slope. The loose pebbles made mini-avalanches at every step, and Stone commented, 'Yeah. This is starting to look familiar.'

Starr nodded, concentrating on where to plant each footfall.

'Good thing you fetched up on a bush when you fell, you know,' Stone added. 'It could have been so much worse. You could have fallen over that.'

'Over what?' she asked, looking where he was pointing.

'Well, it's hard to be sure from this angle, but to me, that sure looks like the edge of a cliff.'

He was right; that was exactly what it looked like. The left side of the slope ended in a sudden sharp edge, and there was no way to tell from here whether the ground beyond made a gentle slope downwards, or a steep one, or even a sudden sheer drop off.

A shiver went through Starr as she stared at it. 'I'm glad I didn't fall that way either. In fact, I'd really rather not be on this slope any longer than we have to.'

'I hear that,' said Stone. 'Come on then, let's go.'

And just as he said the word 'go' - something happened. Something awful.

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