June 2008 Volume Two Issue Four
Melder's Drink - Catherine Cheek
Numin's moccasin slipped, and he fell to his knee on the narrow steps carved into the ridge of the mountain. He caught himself from falling farther, watching as a loose stone plummeted thousands of feet below, bouncing off jagged rocks until its echoes grew fainter. His heart pounded. He must be more careful. He had not suffered eight years of training to die such a simple death. As he rose slowly to his feet, blood seeped from his cut knee to stain the spiral embroidery of his loose pants. He grunted in annoyance.
Unik came up beside him. Unik had climbed to the top of Mount Villejo, just as Numin and the other students did now. One day to mark a brave man. Two days to make a village wise man. Three days to make a Melder. Unik had stayed on the top of Mount Villejo for a week, and unlike some of the unfortunates, he had not cast himself off the summit in a fit of madness. Unik raised a hand over the cut, as if to stop the bleeding with Melding.
Numin shook his head. He held up a palm, warding Unik away from his cut.
"You're afraid of me?" Unik asked.
"No, Melder . . ." Numin said.
"Unik," Unik corrected, as he always did. "You know I'm not a Melder."
"I don't like to be touched by Melder power," Numin confessed, gasping with the effort of speaking at that altitude.
"I saw one of the students in the women's camp touched on the face by her Melder teacher. The teacher turned the woman's irises from black to brown in the time it takes for the eyelids to close and open again. I stopped the student after class to ask her about it."
"You could have been cast out for that." Unik winked. "I hope she was kind enough to give you a kiss for your bravery."
Numin had to take several deep breaths to finish his thought. The headaches were becoming too painful to bear, and sometimes more air helped. The other students had complained of the same altitude headaches, had complained of the mud and the chill wind, and of the holes in their alpaca sweaters. Numin was the oldest of the students making the trek up the mountain, and he felt obliged to bear the discomfort as stoically as possible.
"I wanted to know if it hurt when the Melder changed her eyes. She said her eyes had always been brown." Numin had found that frightening, even more frightening than if the woman had complained of pain. "The Melder changed the forwards and backwards of reality."
"Reality is an illusion," Unik said. "We have told you this every day."
Numin just nodded, needing his breath to climb the final peak. The sky had formed icy rings around the pale sun, a sure sign of snow. Llamas, carrying provisions for those who quit soon enough to need them, bleated in protest. Even those sure footed beasts didn't like to climb this high, this steep. The river winked at them below, distance turning it from a rushing torrent to a sparkling silver thread. Some of those who went mad flung themselves off and fell all the way to the villages below. Some who went mad flung themselves off and never finished falling.
The fog rose suddenly, making the rocks slick and dotting his sweater with beads of moisture. He could see the testing ground just ahead. The other Melder and his two students had already disappeared beyond the giant stone slabs. Four more students waited on the lichen-green rocks. One of the stones glittered, brushed with mica, but even as he pointed to remark to Unik, the stone became gray again. Perhaps it had been gray all along.
At the edge of the testing ground, a peculiar unwillingness made him pause. He had trained for this test, meditated, memorized lessons, undertaken vows of silence, carried stones and water, and endured numerous disciplines. For eight years he had used this final test as a goal, his reward for the occasionally excruciating torments that Melder-training offered. And yet now, here on the brink of the testing ground, he hesitated.
"Unik, do you think any of us will become Melders this year?"
Unik didn't nod or shake his head, but his perpetual solemnity deepened into sadness. "You are ready for the testing."
Numin stepped into the circle, and took his place among the other students. He hardly noticed as Unik slipped down the hill. The Melders would wait in an encampment, waiting to see who would survive one day, and who might survive three. Numin crossed his legs. His calves throbbed from the grueling hike, and his knees protested the cold. If he became a Melder, he would meld the pain out of his knees, become a youth again. He'd give himself eyes of an eagle, wings of an eagle, perhaps, as in fireside tales.
Their Melder guide wore nothing but a thin linen shift and sandals: as poorly dressed as any one-llama villager, but more respected than kings. He hit a copper bell with a stick, and they all straightened reflexively at its tone. More meditation. Numin had once spent four hours staring at a bucket of water, trying to make it boil with his mind, but the water remained cool. As a new student, he had memorized the texture of a persimmon, concentrated on it, imprinted it in his mind, but without Melder-power, he could not create fruit out of air.
The Melder's feet rose above the lichen-covered stones as he levitated. "You see? All is illusion. What holds you down? Nothing."
"All is illusion," Numin said again, trying with all his might to believe it. He tried to levitate, to know that nothing held him down and trick the earth into letting him fly, but his aching hips still rested on the mud and stones. Lice still crawled under his felt hat. His belly still grumbled with not enough potatoes for breakfast.
"Are you ready for the test?" the Melder asked.
"We are ready," the students replied, wearily.
Numin and the other students knew nothing of this final test. If, as he feared, the Melder would force them to perform a final, grueling meditation, Numin had resolved to walk down the mountain with the last of his strength. He had meditated daily for eight years, and learned that truth would not come to him through that path. Half of a maize biscuit and a flask of cold tea would last the journey back to the monastery. Numin felt them in his pouch, patting them for comfort. Perhaps that is why he had always failed. He doubted.
The Melder held a stone in his hand, a stone which abruptly became a basket filled with small fruits. "The time for believing is over. Now you will know."
As the Melder held down the basket, each student chose a fruit. Numin's was orange-green like an underripe persimmon. Small clusters of spines dotted its leathery skin. Others had yellow fruit. All looked inedible.
"One bite of this fruit will bring you back to reality. Don't lose it. The only other way back to your village is the way of the ancestors." He pointed to the edge of the cliff. The wind picked up, whistling between the stones like breath on a reed pipe.
Numin glanced at the other students. One of them had become stuck by a thorn, and was sucking his finger to get it out. Death, or a bite of spiny fruit? Surely that was not the test?
"On the third day, the sun will rise between these stones here. If you have not yet eaten the fruit, you may join me and my brethren in the ranks of the Melders."
"And bring honor to my village," the student next to Numin breathed, so quietly it sounded like a prayer.
"And win victory over my enemies, so that Leina the beautiful will love only me," asserted the student on Numin's other side.
"And become the richest chief of the mountains. I will own a hundred alpacas, each with hair like a spider's silk."
The training was supposed to weed out students with such unhealthy desires. Was this the test? That they might reveal their darkest sides now that the end was in sight? Numin kept quiet, and watched the Melder.
The Melder's basket had changed, from a loose one used for holding potatoes to a tight one used for holding water. It grew, big as a man's head, and dampness oozed out from between the coils, coating the Melder's palms with greenish ichor.
"Drink," commanded the Melder.
And they drank. And they watched as the Melder walked down the path away from them.
The sun had crossed four stones before the ichor took hold.
Numin began to sink into the stones. His feet reached down miles and miles, touching the voices of mummified grandmothers. They cried out to him, in a voice like the spots on a jaguar, and the wind tasted purple. Someone laughed. It might have been him, it might have been the stones. The monolith-stones wanted to run away, they began to slide off the mountain. He pulled them back, wiggling them like fingers clawing into the earth. The mountain shifted, pulling at him, painfully, and it felt like the cry of an eagle's child. Still the stones slid away.
"No! No! No!" He screamed himself hoarse, screamed the first snowmelt. Ice cut him, and fire, though the summit had become as balmy as a baby's kiss.
The student next to him grinned, a blackened mummy's grin, and burst into flame. The flame burned all around, spreading, a disease of fire and agony. It burned the stones, it burned the mud, it burned Numin, it burned the air itself. The agony kept him company that long night, and when the sun rose again, only two remained.
"Where have the others gone?" Numin asked the remaining student, but his lips wouldn't move. He spoke without moving his lips. He asked the wind to calm itself, he asked the stones to stop moving, he asked the pain to leave. The pain left, the mountains crept in. The distant hills, the villages of their enemies, crept into his liver, into his mind, into his eyes, filling him. The ruined cities of their dead allies, whose stone houses now held only iguanas, crept up to the summit and climbed in his ears.
"Too much!" he wailed. He was only one man, not large enough for the cities and mountains, but they ignored his pleas.
Numin watched as the other student ate yellow fruit.
And then Numin drank the sea. When night fell, he took in the stars as well, and the sun and the moon. He held the earth in his belly.
As the sun rose on the third day, he finally understood. The ichor had broken down his mind, brought him back to the before-the-sun time, when men and beasts and gods were as one. All was illusion. He and the earth and the sky were all as one. Numin thought of heat, and made himself warm. He thought of fullness, and the hunger pangs vanished. He thought of vitality, and made himself young inside, sparkling like a geode, keeping only his old stone face.
But Numin had always waited and watched. Eight years he trained at the monastery, when most students stayed only three. He waited, let the fruit lie uneaten in his hand, and his power grew. His mind grew. He felt the mountains, felt every furrow of them as a fold in his own skin, felt the snowmelt like his own tears. People crawled on the mountain, his people. They knew hunger. He reached out to help them.
Wait, said the mountain, for even as he became the mountains, they became him. Wait and see. And in this dream the mountain showed him, Numin eased the famine of the villagers. And they had much food, and they grew, and they needed more homes, so they stretched up into the hillsides, and the enemies came to steal the food, and blood ran down with the snowmelt, and Numin wept. He spread his hand, wiping the enemies away, as one wipes ants off a toenail. The earth moved, and swallowed them up, and jaguars came to eat the corpses, and no one sang for their dead. Too much power! Too much destruction, even as he sought to help!
The sun rose on the fourth day, and Numin found that he could meld the earth to his liking. Surely with this much power, he could fix any ill that he caused? He had power now, Melder power, power to change the world as easily as a man running through soft powdery snow. The clouds poured in his mind. See what your power might do, they whispered. He lifted a hand, and it turned jaguars away, but killed the alpacas. He pulled disease off his village, and women cried with hunger as their babies starved. He brushed off death, and the ancestors wailed in loneliness. The earth had listened to him, and obeyed him.
Numin listened back. Any man could destroy a virgin white field of new snow, but no man could remake it perfect again. Numin listened, and nodded in agreement at the wisdom of earth and sky, and did nothing. He pulled himself inward, barely daring to breathe lest he meld the earth with a stray thought. Not for the unmaking of the world had he come here, not for the Melding, but for a higher purpose. Melders may change the world, but only those who had gone beyond could keep it as it was.
As the fifth day rose, Numin bit into the hard and spiny flesh of the fruit. Reality returned. He savored the astringent fruit, thorns and all. He pulled himself inward, back to his own flesh. He concentrated on the illusion of thin, cold air whipping around the summit. He forced his eyes to tear up as the whine of wind sapped them of moisture.
The wind stopped speaking. The mountains no longer crept into his body. The oceans stayed far away, in their beds, where they belonged. Numin stood and walked past the ring of stones. Snow had fallen. It covered everything like a forgiving mother. He tread carefully, to disturb as little as possible. On the path to the encampment Unik waited, sitting crosslegged on the ground with a thick dusting of snow on his head and shoulders.
"Five days. Five days you sat within the embrace of the drink on the summit of Mount Vallejo."
"It's very cold today," Numin said, though he felt no cold, nor pain of aching hips.
"Then let an old friend find something to warm you." Unik pushed himself to his feet and greeted Numin with a smile. With a gnarled hand, Unik reached into his pack and pulled out a thin cloth, a rag barely clean enough to carry new-dug potatoes. "Congratulations, Melder Numin."
"No." Numin reached for the rag, let it drape over his fingers, not through them. A desire slipped though, and the rag became of finest alpaca. Downy hairs sprung from the fabric, promising that the shawl would feel as warm as new ash. He closed his eyes, remembered, and the shawl became a rag again. "I'm just Numin. There won't be any new Melders this year."
Unik patted his shoulder. "You were always the wisest of my students."
- END -