by J. Patrick Carr
I first encountered the megalith as a young man, lost and wandering deep in the Greenwood. I found it standing tall in the center of an open glade. Its black granite was smoothed by countless years of weathering and it had no markings upon it save for a perfect circle on one side, carved into the hard stone about three-quarters of the way up its towering body. It was regal and majestic then, rising high above the trees with its tiny crystals reflecting the summer sun. My hand grew warm when I touched it. It felt safe and welcoming.
I was a newcomer in the woods then. I was looking for a land to call home, a place to settle down and begin my life; maybe even start a family. Somehow, I felt invited by the megalith. It must have been raised there sometime in the unknowable past by a forgotten people. Maybe they were my wandering ancestors, hoping that their children would visit here in the ages to come. That night, I camped in its warm shadow. I did not need to light a fire; the megalith warmed me from within. It shielded me from the night winds and I found berries growing at its feet. The high, lonely howl of a pack of forest wolves startled me, but never did they enter the clearing to threaten me. I could see their gray-brown coats through the trees and their glinting, hungry eyes reflecting the silver light of the moon. They watched me for some time and stalked about the edges of the clearing, but they never approached out of some primal reverence for that place. I managed to drift into a dreamless sleep.
I awoke the next morning invigorated and content, choosing to stay in that land. I scanned the woods for a place to build my homestead. I did not wander from the megalith’s clearing, always keeping it in range of my eyes. It was the spring of the year, and the thin trees had only the barest of bright green sprouts on them, searching the earth for warmth and sustenance. The thickest grass and the highest trees grew near the megalith, including a copse of massive oaks that ringed it on all sides. Often I looked back at the stone to keep my bearings, searching its lone marking for some advice. I eventually found a nice spot close to a spring that issued clear, cool water. I drank from the spring often, and the fish in the stream it birthed were always plentiful.
In the beginning, my life was hard. Every day I toiled in the elements to build my new life. However, I never felt alone out in the wild by myself. There was always the megalith. I tended to visit it in the evenings, even to talk to it to offset my loneliness. I felt always as if it approved of my presence. During my long days, I hunted in the forest for wild deer and labored to cut wood for my home. From the highest tree I could see a village on a far green hill, many miles away. I did not wish to go there at first, fearing that the people might not welcome a stranger in their land. I had left my own home after a feud with my overbearing father. We had foolishly fought over the land, him wanting to give the largest and most fertile share to my older brother. I hated him for the greater love he bore Jakon and for his constant desire for control over my life. I was hard-headed and young then. I did not wish for any new trouble with my distant neighbors.
After I had been in the woods for many moons, a party of trappers happened upon my camp. They were simple folk, farmers and hunters. I felt as though they knew their land well, and lived a life close to nature, in harmony with the earth. Their clothes were simple leathers and most wore basic linen shirts of brown or white. The sleeves were long and rolled back away from their hands, quite unlike the vest I wore. A few had boiled leather bracers clasped about their wrists and a quiver of yellow-fletched arrows over their shoulders. Almost all of them had a deep green tunic over their garments, an attempt to better hide in the colors of the forest. The men shaved their faces neatly, and the varied colors of their hair stood dramatically apart from their tanned skin. All were kind to me, unsuspicious of my presence there. Their leader, a tall man with graying hair and patient eyes, spoke to me. His words were heavy with a strange dialect, but I understood him well enough. He reminded me of my grandfather.
“What is your name? Why do you stay here alone?” he asked.
“I am called Joren. I am new to your land, and I stay here to build my new home.”
“You should visit our village. We don’t get visitors often. Autumn is coming soon and we will have our harvest festival.”
“I think I would enjoy that,” I said smiling at him, sensing his genuine hospitality.
The man’s daughter was with the group. She was a few years younger than me and beautiful to my eyes. She said nothing to me then, but I did notice her watching me, taking my measure. I was struck by her green eyes and perfect skin. Her auburn hair was a flowing mimicry of the deepening colors of the fall forest. She never left my mind after that first meeting.
“Go to her.”
The next month, I walked those short miles to the village and stayed for the festival. I took along cured venison and many deer horns which I knew were valued almost like gold by the people. I had more than enough to trade for the supplies I needed for the coming winter and some left over still to negotiate for an ox to plow my fields in the coming spring. I lingered in town that day awaiting the start of the festivities. All of the rugged faces I met that day were warm and kind.
The village square was decorated for the harvest festival. Vegetables of all sorts were stacked high in various places, a towering mix of orange pumpkins, green squash, and yellow corn. Several wooden tables were set out and adorned by red and brown linens. The square itself had been swept clean, and a small stage was erected there for use by the players. A great bonfire was piled neatly in the exact center of the village and fair-haired children raced around it, anticipating the excitement to come. The place had a rustic charm about it and I was reminded of the home I had left.
At sunset that evening, the festival began. I saw the trapper’s daughter again and watched her from afar. I hid my eyes tactfully by raising my cup to my lips and quietly cursed the men, and a few boys, who had the audacity to ask her for a dance. But, the girl refused them all. She was wearing a beautiful dress in the colors of the season. Brown, green, and gold mingled with her auburn hair to weaken my knees and steal away my confidence. For some reason, I stood after a few nervous minutes and looked back to the Greenwood, to where I knew the megalith was standing and watching me, supporting me. It might have been the tangy spiced cider or the spirit of the festival in me, but I waited until the musicians began another song and then I asked her to dance. She said her name was Tana, their word for a summer flower that grew in that land. I gently took her white hand and we turned to the dance floor.
“Are you enjoying the festival?” she asked, smiling.
“I am, but I fear I am not much of a dancer,” I confessed.
“You’re doing fine. You are quick on your feet.”
“Thank you, hunting and working keeps me strong.” My words sounded stupid to my ears, but she smiled through the awkwardness. I hoped that the red on my face was disguised by the bright bonfire.
“Why do you stay there, alone in the woods? Have you no family?”
“I left my father’s home to make my own place in the world. I hope to have my own family one day. I will need a wife and children to manage my farm.”
She blushed then and turned her eyes to the ground. My words were too bold, even though I was not directly thinking of her when I spoke them. We finished the dance in silence and then I returned to my table to drink some honey wine. It helped to lighten my mood. The players kicked up a quicker tune, a reel I knew from my own childhood. The lead was played by a tall, lanky man with long, thin brown hair. His skinny fingers flew across his fiddle and his bow moved like a blur. The bassist thumped right along with him and the six-string and the flute popped in and out to play quick, vibrant solos. They had the look of travelling professionals, smiling and winking at the locals and enjoying the click of the coins that landed in their open instrument cases. Their playing had everyone clapping and stamping their feet to the rhythm. Some folks called out in a yelp in answer to the wild music, and one spry old woman stood on her table to dance a simple step. Across the village square, I saw the trapper raise his cup to me and I returned his salute. He then raised his eyebrows and smiled in the direction of his lovely daughter. She was approaching me again.
“I bet the next tune is an easy one to dance to, if you are up for it. Nice and slow.” Her kindness was refreshing, and I hastily accepted. She smiled again, her face warmed by the firelight. The flames reveled in her eyes and danced across her glistening lips. I kissed her.
“She will be yours.”
The following summer we were hand-fasted in a ceremony in the glade under the approving gaze of the megalith. I wore my finest, and Tana wore a simple gown of pure white. A motley array of the summer flowers adorned her long hair. The base of the megalith was piled high with the gifts of the sweet summer: honey, fruit, and bottled red wine. Our home was expanded and improved with the aid of some of the village men, and I had broken the soil early that spring to plant my first promising field. The life I had wanted was coming to be. I almost felt guilty for the treasures that I had received. Unbeknownst to her father, she was already pregnant with our first son.
He was born that autumn, almost one year after my first festival with the villagers and the timing seemed so fitting. He was healthy and hale at birth, but we struggled for some time to name him. It was their custom to name the firstborn after the father’s father, but I did not want that. He was my son and I would be the one to choose. I alone.
“Nathen, after your father.”
“Let’s name him Joren,” I said to my wife.
“Yes, let’s. It’s a fine name, it’s your name. My father might not approve, though. It’s not our custom.”
“He’s my son. I’ll name him as I see fit.”
The winter that year was hard. A bitter cold lasted for many months and the ground often shook beneath our feet. The plentiful stream was frozen over too solidly to easily find water, and the beasts of the wood were absent, save for the hunger-maddened wolves who circled much too near my home. My son was anxious and distracted, refusing my attentions. He would lie in his bed, tiny head turned to face the glade with a distant stare in his eyes. The villagers grumbled nonsense about the gods being angry, but my small farm had produced well and we had more than enough food stocked away to last until the sun’s return.
We planted the fields together that spring. I turned over the soil with much difficulty, the ground still cold and frozen from the harsh winter. My ox bellowed in complaint, but I urged her onward with the whip. The men said I was starting too early, but I ignored their advice and toiled hard. Tana and I both seeded the ground, her eager to help after putting Jorenson to bed. I noticed that she was placing only two kernels in each hole, unlike my method of placing three.
“Tana!” I called out across the field. “Place three seeds in each hole.”
“Sorry, I just thought that two would be plenty.”
“Three is best, in case the crows get at them. Why did you only drop two?”
“I’m not sure; it was just a thought in my head.” She looked back over her shoulder toward the glade, where that black rock stood. My heart filled with anger, and I retraced Tana’s steps to place an extra seed in each and every hole. The soil was dead that spring, dry and gray, nothing like the moist, dark peat that I had planted in the previous year. My corn grew slowly that season, and stood only as high as my chest by harvest time.
My farm was not the only one so afflicted. All of the villagers’ farms produced much less than the year before, seemingly healthy livestock died, and the harvest celebration was a somber affair. The women pretended to be merry, and the men sat about whispering about what had gone wrong. Even the travelling players hadn’t returned this year. Their jovial music was much needed and much missed. I went to the festival with my family; it was in many ways also my son’s first birthday party, but we sat alone. Few of the villagers acknowledged us, and none had a kind word. Even Tana’s father remained a stranger to us, stealing sly glances but never coming over to join our party. I could see the hurt in her eyes.
After an uneasy hour, one of the village elders came to us. The man wore the traditional garb of the towns’ elders. Over his pure white shirt he had a short coat of the brightest red, embroidered with a crisp yellow and displaying polished brass buttons. His pants were wool, dyed black; his boots were knee-high and made from fine leather. A graying mustache was twisted to a point at the ends, but otherwise he was clean shaven. His sun-browned, rough skin contrasted with his wizened hair, and his eyes shone out a brilliant blue. He seemed polite and kind at first, but he was clearly uncomfortable. The other villagers could scarcely hide their fascination with our talk.
“Joren, friend, I am glad that you brought your family in for the occasion,” he said.
“Thank you sir, I only wish the mood were higher, but it was a disappointing growing season.”
“Yes, but we’ve been through this before,” he said, raising his troubled eyes to the woods. “So, I never met your son, what did you end up naming him?” He dropped his gaze to look at my boy without lowering his head. It felt contemptuous, and I sensed that this was his true reason for speaking with me, but I could not understand why.
“We decided to call him, Joren, after his father,” answered Tana. I smiled at the child and tousled his yellow hair.
“Is that so? Not much for tradition, I guess.”
“I am not from your land, my traditions are different.” My tone was far more hostile than I intended it to be, and I regretted my words as soon as they were spoken.
“I see. You are your own man. But, some of us here are very old-fashioned. They believe that failure to follow the old ways brings misfortune. Your ways are strange and foreign to us, friend. You don’t honor your own father’s name, you plant your crop in an odd fashion, and, if it weren’t for Tana, you’d just live out there all by yourself. You ought to mind our ways and try to respect what you don’t understand. Many think you have brought this trouble upon us all.”
I lost my head and stood up quickly, forcing the older man to back up suddenly. He stumbled and fell to the ground, landing with an embarrassing thud on the hard earth. It wasn’t my intention to tumble him over, but I was seething from his words to me. And yet I said nothing, but did not offer to help him either. Two younger men, probably his kin, came over scowling at me and helped him to his feet. They skulked away without another word, only shooting hateful glares over their shoulders in response. The villagers’ eyes were all on us now, and some even narrowed their gaze at my young son, as if he were somehow to blame.
“Joren, maybe we should go,” my wife quietly whispered at my side. It felt as if the black of the dying year was pressing in around us; that the spirit in the community was being drawn away.
“Walk back tonight? It’s late already and the distance is several miles.”
“But, I don’t think we are welcome here.”
We rose from our table. Tana carried Jorenson on her back, and I carried our packs and the goods we had purchased earlier that day. It was well after evenfall, but I felt that she was right. Our walk would be long and dark, the child would fuss, but the sentiment there was blacker than the night and colder than the chilled air.
We trod slowly, my torch our only source of light along the road. I looked ahead, toward the glade, searching for the megalith looming above the trees. It was far away yet, and the night was dark, but I caught sight of it. It was there, among the ancient trees, darker than the sky surrounding it. I felt as if it were angry, brooding and drawing in the light around it, consuming the energy from the land and even the sky. I begrudgingly admitted its power to myself, its pull on the land and the simple folk who lived there. I had felt it myself, right from the very beginning, but I did not know to respect it, fear it, then.
We walked in silence, both of us feeling the gloom around us. I listened to the erratic fall wind blowing the trees and scattering the myriad leaves. It was not very cold, but the gentle chill of the harvest season urged us to walk close together. Often I heard sounds just off the road, irregular movements and unexplained rustlings of the bush. My hunter’s eye scanned the dark, but I was blinded by the close light of my fire. The wind kicked up the brown dust of the road and tricked my eye with ghosts of pale dirt and swirling leaves. Tana looked at me with concern, and we hastened our step.
Turning to look behind us, I could make out dark figures following us on the road. They carried no light, and stayed far enough behind to escape ours. They seemed to be only following, but for how long and why? I stopped and turned to face them in defiance.
“Who are you, and what do you mean by following my family?”
“Joren,” spoke one voice as they closed in, “We need you to give us the child.” He pulled back his hood and I recognized the man from the village. He was at the festival, one of the many unfriendly faces.
“Tana, run,” I spoke quietly to my wife. I could see the panic in her eyes, but she turned to go, following my word. “You’ll have to take him from me,” I called out in challenge to the men. I had no weapon except for my strong body and my hard, workman’s hands. Rage filled my mind then, and I recklessly charged at the men. They broke apart, scattering around me, and moved to my vulnerable flanks. I managed to lash out and grab one of them. I smashed his nose into his face with a bloody splatter. However, there was a hard crack on the back of my head and a quick flash of white light. The road rushed up to meet me. In the distance, I heard my wife screaming and my baby wailing.
When I opened my eyes again, I was in the clearing, on the ground before the hateful stone. I was bound by coarse, thick ropes about my chest, hands, knees, and feet. It stood there, triumphant above me, the light of dozens of torches licking its black body. A sanguine harvest moon languished in the gray sky. My head was thick with pain, my vision red with the blood in my eyes. My mouth tasted of iron. Time crept. Tana was there too, but she was a madwoman, writhing on the grass and howling for them to stop in an unnatural, visceral voice. She often called out for her father’s help, but I saw him nowhere in the crowd of people from the village.
On the ground before the megalith a pile of wood had been collected, and the elders stood around it, speaking in a lost tongue. They had my son. I tried to speak, but my mouth was swollen shut, my throat crushed. I tried to stand, but my bindings were too taut. One of the men noticed me then, and shoved me back down each time I tried to rise. I caught his eyes with mine and pleaded, wordlessly, for his aid. But his face was cold; dead to me and my plight.
I was forced to watch as they placed my only child on the pyre. He lay there naked against the cruel wood, but did not cry. He never cried out, neither in fear nor pain. The elder who had spoken to me just hours before now took a torch from his attendant and set it to the wood. Fire crackled to life as he said a few more arcane words, face gazing upward to the eye of the megalith. All around the megalith, the chant was repeated in low tones until it rose up in a great crescendo, louder than Tana’s wailing and the thundering of my own heart. I could not remove my eyes from the macabre scene. As the flames stretched up to consume my son, the ground beneath us trembled and the villagers gathered there cheered in relief. Tears ran down my dumb face. The wolves sang deep in the dark forest around us.
They enjoyed a very mild winter that year.
Tana and I had been allowed to leave, and she assured me, over and over, that she had no idea what her people were capable of. There had never been a failed crop in her lifetime, and most thought that the old ways were lost. She had fleeting memories from her childhood of her father and others leaving the village to visit the woods, but she was always told that they were hunting, or simply “walking.” I believed her and we left that place together. We traveled back to my home country, and meekly lived in my father’s house for a time. We never spoke again of our ordeal in her country, not even to one another. It was hard to return to my father’s house and admit my failures. I only gave him vague, ambiguous details. I was afraid of the megalith’s power, even here. I did not want it to find a way to hurt the rest of my family. I remember our first words after those quiet years well.
“Father, I am sorry and ashamed of my actions when I left. It wasn’t my place to question your decisions with your own land. I should have been thankful for anything that I received.” The words were easier to say than it was to look into his hard, gray eyes. But in them I saw love and immediate forgiveness.
“Son, those days and those words are gone like a cloudburst of cold rain. I am happy to see you and your beautiful wife. You are welcome here, and I and Jakon will help you in whatever way you need. I know of an abandoned old farm not far from here. Maybe you can make a new start there.”
“My brother and his family are well?”
“Yes, but you have been missed. You look so much like your mother, and when you left, I felt like I had lost a great part of her again. Welcome home, son.” At that, he embraced me and I felt the hasty deeds of the past being erased.
I did start up a farm not far from my father’s, and he helped me with some land and the use of some tools. With his guidance, my land prospered and Tana and I found some measure of happiness together again, but we were never able to have another child. Jakon encouraged us to visit and to care for his two little ones often, but it wasn’t the same; perhaps it made things worse. It broke Tana’s heart. She died some years later and all of the hope was gone again from my life. I buried her next to my mother, and visit their namestones every nineday.
I still feel the megalith sometimes. I’ve seen it in my dark dreams at night. It’s still standing there, watching me from afar, somewhere over those blue hills and through the wide green valley on the other side. Mile upon mile separates us now, but I am still cursed by its ugly power. If I were a better man, I’d return in secret and beat upon it with my bare fists until I reduced it to rubble, but I have nothing left but my hate and the bitter memory of my failure.