I stood at the start of a rocky path, the moon at my back. Wise Woman Noor had been preparing me for this journey all my life, and although I was embarking on it earlier than expected, I was ready.
I felt my face and neck, expecting to feel marks there, but my skin was smooth, so I put it from my mind. A small pack holding food and seeds clung tightly to my shoulders, my long black hair getting caught on some of the loose river stalks from which the basket was woven. This discomfort was welcome as it distracted me from what was to come.
The easiest part of my path was short. Soon I found myself staring into what was little more than a large hole puncturing the side of a hill. The path continued down into it. Inside this hole, the darkness was almost tangible; a living thing that ate light.
I stood at the entrance; apprehension clutching me. I had no torch, no fire to light my path; I could only trust in ancient rituals to guide me. Praying they would not fail, I stepped through the opening, the darkness swallowing me completely.
For a few seconds, when the darkness remained unbroken, I thought all was lost. But as I stood waiting, a soft glow rose up around me. Tattooed lines, which swirled from the tops of my feet and up my legs, jumping from my hips to my shoulders and swarming down my arms till they hit the tips of my fingers, shone, brighter than I had imagined, lighting up the air around me until I could see the ground upon which I walked and the walls I passed. Confident, now that this first test of my people’s knowledge had proved true, I stepped forward, sure of what was ahead. The darkness, driven back by the light, held no further terrors.
A brightness ahead caught my attention and I hurried onward. I entered a cavernous room where the floor had been eaten up by a burning hot liquid fire, brighter and hotter than any fire I’d seen before. Reeking smoke rose from it, obscuring the roof.
I recalled the warning Noor had pounded into me. ‘Do not touch the fire! There will be a path, mere stones that will take you across. Be quick but be careful! Fall in and you will never reach your destination. Linger too long and you will be burned.’
Squinting, I saw the path; like stepping stones across a river. I jumped to the first, landing easily. I leaped from stone to stone, trying to hurry but not wanting to fall. Heat rolled up from the fire, slowly roasting my feet, until the skin was red and painful. At the second last stone I stumbled. Almost falling head first into the fluid flames. I fought fear’s pull. I fumbled onto the next rock, barely keeping my balance. I pitched forward and landed heavily on the solid shelf beyond. Panting, I collapsed, pressing my face to the floor. Relief cradled me but before long the heat drove me, on my hands and knees, from the cavern and into the cool darkness of the tunnel.
My feet ached and I could not put any weight on them. I crawled forward, toward another light ahead. The beacon grew until, leaving the tunnel, I was back under the gleam of the moon. A slight breeze consoled me, the comfort of the open sky raising me from my knees.
A vast plain spread out before me, flat and featureless. Just beyond the mouth of the cave the path split into three, heading in different directions. In the middle of the path sat an old woman. I had expected this. A large flat stone lay in front of her, and she was using a smaller round stone to grind grain upon it.
‘Great Siti,’ I called, limping as I approached her, ‘can you please tell me which path to take?’
‘Mai pah ceh?‘ (Where are you going?) she asked, without looking up.
I knew she was simply being difficult so I repeated my question, ‘Please, can you tell me the way?’ She looked up at me then, smiling.
‘Perhaps, if you will grind some grain for me.’
I sat down before her and pulled the stones toward me. Picking up a handful of grain, I placed it in a pile on the large flat stone. I raised the other rock high and brought it down hard on the centre of the pile, impatience quickening my actions. My blow hit the stone wrong and it tilted, flinging most of my grain onto the ground.
‘Ach, you’re useless!’ the old woman cried, ‘Take the path on the right and begone with you!’ Grabbing the stones, anger set her to grinding what was left of my grain.
‘Thank you, Great Siti,’ I rose, smiling knowingly. Laughing, she waved me down the path, knowing as well as I did that I’d spilt the grain on purpose. Had I showed any skill at grinding she would have kept me with her for many years before telling me the way.
Before I had gone too far into the plains, I pulled some specially prepared food out of my pack, steadying myself in anticipation of the next trial. I could make out a dark smudge in the distance, a great wall spreading across the horizon. My feet still ached but I trudged forward knowing I was getting close.
As I walked, I scanned the ground, waiting. Even the slightest suggestion of movement had fear jumping through my veins. Knowing what is to happen is one thing, having it actually happen is something different altogether. A loud rumbling filled the air and I twirled around. The ground before me began to churn, boiling like water over a fire. The first things to break through were the teeth. Each easily the size of my hand, rows and rows of deadly edges gleamed in the moonlight. The mouth took up most of its head, as wide as I was long. I backed away as it spilled out of the hole. The worm, impossibly long, arched up into the sky and bent its head towards me. I was looking straight into its mouth. Fear abandoned my veins and grabbed me by the throat, strangling my screams. Gasping, I scrambled out of the way, just as the worm’s head struck the ground I had been standing on. The world shook with the blow, knocking me off my feet. On my back now, I stared up at the maw of the beast, clutching the food in my hands, horror twisting in my belly. I saw the head begin it’s descent as I threw the package skyward with all my might. I saw it arch down into the dark oblivion of the monster’s throat, as I rolled out of its path. Thwarted once more, the worm lifted itself high above me, sure of its success at last.
That’s when the poison kicked in. The food had been made from a plant toxic to the animal. Poison racing through its veins, killing the very fabric of its soul, it drew away from me. Its whole body writhed and thrashed from the pain. It burrowed itself, shrieking, into the dirt. I slumped to the ground, eyes shut tight from exhaustion. As its dying cries faded and the ground settled I dragged myself to my feet, promising my aching body that it was almost there. Not much farther.
The closer I got to the wall, the more detail I could make out. It was huge; three times my height. A great door was standing at the end of the path, open to give me a glimpse of what was beyond.
Before I could pass through it, the stones swung forward and shut with a huge crash. Groaning, I remembered what I had to do, I backed up until the door reopened. I paused, catching my breath, ignoring my protesting limbs. Then I ran. The door started to close. By the time I got to the threshold, the opening was only as wide as I was. Turning to face it side on I slipped through. My momentum carried me down the slight hill on the other side. A few steps in I was yanked to a halt, nearly falling on my face. I looked back to see my dress, dirty and ragged, stretching back to the wall. A corner of it had been caught between the great stones; had I been any slower it would have been my leg. Without warning the fabric ripped and I tumbled. Young hands caught me, supporting my weight.
Cries caught my attention and I turned my back on the door.
‘Aisyah! Aisyah! You’re here! Welcome, welcome!’ Ten or so children were guiding me across a wide river, nearly carrying me. I recognised their faces, though I had not seen them in many years. Greeting them each by name I told them of their families; their brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers. They all had the same questions.
‘How are they? Are they sick; injured!? Are they coming soon? Will they be here soon!?’
‘They’re fine, not injured or sick. They’re not coming yet, not for a while.’
‘Not coming?!’ The children all started wailing. I could not comfort them. They released me, walking back to the river. As I turned my back on them the pain that had covered my entire being melted away and I crossed into the village that lay before me. It glowed in the light of the sunrise, the brown walls and thatched roofs welcoming me. At the very edge of the village Noor stood, waiting for me. She faced me, a basket at her feet. Behind her was a large crowd. Though many of the faces were unfamiliar, they were all smiling at me.
I reached Noor and she took me in her arms. ‘I am pleased to see you made the journey, my dear.’ She pulled back and touched my face, my neck. ‘It is nice to see your pretty face once more, unmarred by this tragedy.’ She turned with me to face the crowd. The villagers rushed up to me, laughing and greeting me. Noor introduced me to the people I didn’t know. Then reaching down into her basket she pulled out gifts of food, presenting them to the most recent additions to the village. She told them of the love of their relatives, reassuring them that they remained in the hearts and minds of their families. However, when her basket was empty, many of the people were empty handed. These approached her, asking after their love ones. She looked at them sadly.
‘I’m sorry. I have no gifts for you. Your family does not remember you. You have passed from their minds and out of their hearts.’ She turned to me, pressing a small package of my favourite food into my hands. ‘Your family grieves for you. We miss you. It is so sad that you were taken from us so young. We send our love. Your bones will be mixed with those of our ancestors. I will see you again soon, my child, when I make my own journey. For now, wait, and know that those you left behind love you.’
Her outline blurred and she faded from sight, her spirit returning. It was over. Turning with the other villagers I walked into my new village, leaving my life behind. I was no longer one of the living. Instead I would wait here for the rest of my people to join me, when they too passed over the moon and into the spirit world.
Liz Ryan is an emerging writer studying at Deakin University. She spent the first few years of her life toughing out the freezing winters of Waseca, Minnesota. The story of how she got from northern America to southern Australia is long and complicated. Suffice to say she did.