“If we build a wall from the valley floor as high as we can reach and around on each side to the cliffs above us, we will be safe from the marauding predations of the others.”
We build the wall. It reaches as high as we can build it, and we begin it in the valley below, dodging the raids of the alien predators who resemble us but are so uncivilized. We wall ourselves into a ring of safety and we do not pass beyond it.
The others do not venture past our wall. They keep their distance, watching with wide eyes as we build our world away from them. One by one they disappear into the valley until no more are seen as we finish piling the rocks and mortaring them into place, building our wall impossibly high.
The others fade from memory and are the demons and villains only of the stories told by the grandfathers to the young ones, the threats of mothers to stubborn and disobedient children.
* * *
Two children play near the gate.
Why did we build a gate? We built a gate, of course, to prove we could leave our enclosure if we wanted. The wall is to keep the others out, not to keep us in. Besides, by the time the wall was finished, no one remembered why it was really necessary and we were tired of building it and we may have forgotten to finish it. Maybe this is not so much a gate but the incomplete last stone panel of the immense wall, abandoned in our arrogant certainty that the others were repelled at last by our daring feat of architecture and engineering.
The boy and girl are curious and have heard the stories of the vicious, mysterious other beings. None of those creatures have been seen in so very long. Grandmama says she saw them many years ago as a child herself. She says Mama has never seen them, though, because our wall is frightening to them and they do not come close now. They are right to be afraid of us, with our impressive wall and our civilization.
Surely there is no danger in just looking beyond the wall! The others have been driven away by their rightful fear of our superiority. They do not dare to come near our wall! The boy and the girl peek around the unguarded opening. They venture beyond, each daring the other to go further, then forgetting the danger as they play unmolested and unnoticed.
A pathway of sorts winds through the barren rock of the craggy hillside. They run along it, holding hands, then stop again to play. They have played for so long safely outside the wall that they forget there is a need to stay safe. They forget the stories of danger-and-terror-before-the-wall.
The boy comes upon a flat place that overlooks the valley and leads to another hill. He stands upon it, throwing out his chest like the bravest hero of battles, howling his superiority to the empty land beyond the whipping wind and throwing wide his skinny arms. His sister laughs and jumps to her place beside him. She strikes a mocking pose with one hand on her hip and a graceful arm outstretched to accept the adoring cheers of imaginary crowds. She bows deeply. Her brother laughs. The children jump from the rock to greet the throngs of their admirers.
In sudden panic they seize each other. The others have found them! They are beyond sight of the walls of safety. The others surround them!
The creatures are terrifying in their otherness. The children stand rigid for inspection, holding their breaths. The dirty, oddly shaped things come close enough to touch them, then shy away as if burned. They chatter rapidly with no words comprehensible to the ears of the boy and girl. The things retreat and appear to argue among themselves.
They are small, stooped, walking with leaping, crabbed steps from rock to rock. They are brown all over, brown eyes, shaggy dark brown hair, brown skin, dirty brown rags clinging to their skinny bodies. Their brownness makes each individual look like every other.
They are the others: the others who kidnap slaves and steal food and threaten the peace and are the reason for the wall. They are the unshaped creatures of nightmares and the stealers of babies and the evil of every story ever told. They are no bigger than the boy and girl.
The children take advantage of the others’ argument to look for escape. They must climb up to the place from which they had jumped into this horror. They cannot climb quickly enough to escape.
The brown things are quiet, watching the children with interest. Hearing the sudden silence, the children stop climbing. They look around and sheepishly climb back down. The others are before them, watching them in silence and stillness. The girl reaches for her brother’s hand.
The children sigh. They know they have been captured. They did not obey the warning of the wall and now are forced to live out the terrifying tales of children who disappear to the others never to go home again.
They hold hands, hang their heads, and step into the small group of brown people who will now make them over into uncivilized beasts unrecognizable by their mother and mold them into the stuff of the nightmares their friends will surely suffer.
* * *
The sister stops her work and turns, smoothing her dress.
“What is it?” asks her friend, tucking a strand of dark brown hair behind one ear.
“Something is happening,” replies the girl. Her friend turns to look over her shoulder toward the approaching men.
Another woman remarks, “They have found something.”
The group of men and boys comes closer, growing as it nears the small group of women. The girl sees her brother in the group, gesturing animatedly as he speaks to the leader. The men stop. The leader of the men questions the boy. He is insisting, and explaining again. He shows the leader the object he carries. The leader turns and stalks away in disgust.
The boy calls to his sister, “It is from home!” She drops her work and runs to him.
* * *
They have walked so long, and they have traveled up, up so far. The rocky path and barren landscape are indifferent to their passage. The people behind them do not speak unnecessarily. The occasional voice is shushed by a terse response. In the distance, green hills hold a mere suggestion of comfort beyond the reddish-grey line separating the valley from the heights. For now, the rocky path is all that exists for them.
“We are closer,” the brother says to the sister. She glances at him in exasperation.
“Of course we are closer. We are traveling in the right direction, aren’t we?”
He shrugs and they continue leading the small, tired, fearful group along the rocky path they have traveled only once before.
When the path ends in a pile of rocky rubble, the boy and girl look up. They exchange rueful glances. One playful leap at this spot so long ago changed so much. A shout from one of their companions directs them to another, smaller pile of rubble, easier for the young ones to cross.
The path continues upward; grass is determined to hold on to its place among the rocks on either side; scrub defies the odds and reaches maturity to gather the blowing dust. A yellow flower peeks from behind a red-gray stone dropped long ago by the builder of a wall.
* * *
The brother and sister walk hesitantly through the gap in the wall, followed by their tired companions. They now stop, wondering what will happen. They hear gasps from the others behind them.
Their eyes drink in the stone structures they have not seen in so long. No one notices them except two children sitting in the shadow of the wall who freeze in mid-play, gaping at the alien vision that has just invaded their normal world.
Then a woman cries out and rushes to collect the frozen children. All eyes turn upon the travelers.
Another shout, this time of question, not daring to know, disbelieving. The brother smiles to greet this woman.
The woman does not recognize this strange young man and woman before her, yet there is an underlying familiarity that has startled her question from her. She sees the others but does not look at them. The young man and young woman fill her eyes. She takes a tentative step toward them, but heeds the sudden warning called by a man. The young woman calls her by name. How does she know her name?
The man approaches the group of travelers carefully, hand and arm upraised as if to ward off attack by this soiled brown army led by the strange young man and young woman. He steps forward and barks his demand. The young man also steps forward.
The others stand still, imperceptibly shrinking from this onslaught of alien activity and confusion. A child buries its startled brown eyes in its mother’s shoulder and softly moans its fear.
The young man greets the older one by name in the language of the people behind the wall. “My sister and I have returned. Do you not know us?” He smiles. His mother utters his name, utters his sister’s name.
The others exchange furtive glances. These are two words they recognize. The rest is a babble.
“Do you bring an enemy to us?” demands the man. He stops a safe distance from the travelers.
“An enemy? An enemy with babies and old ones? What enemy uses its weakest forces to invade?” the young man says. There is strained laughter in his voice, which is rusty from not having spoken this language in so long.
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