This story is by Catherine Callicott and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Quick, rapid breaths of dry autumn air seared the inside of her nose and brought a snap of pine that stung the back of her throat. Still, Menily pushed her exhausted legs forward. She could not see or hear them, but she could feel it in her bones. They were close. She hadn’t thought they would follow her this far, but Túkwet had said they would be protected here and she trusted him. Menily trusted him with everything.
In front of Túkwet, a large lizard scrambled across crumbled granite and into the low brush that dotted the rocky ridge. Túkwet stopped short, throwing his hand back behind him to grip hers. Menily peered over the top of his shoulder. It seemed the edge of the world had appeared before them. To the left, the dirt and rock ended, opening up into empty air. They had made it to the top of the peak – Túkwet’s promised safety – however, looking ahead Menily’s heart dropped.
A group of men stood before the pair, blocking the way ahead. Angry torrents of wind that blustered from the wrong direction, up from the eastern deserts and through the western mountain passes, had caked a mixture of dust and sweat into the creases of their foreheads and mouths. Although the gusts blew the men’s hair behind their shoulders Menily knew that, like herself, the hot, dry air did nothing to cool their bodies, which must have strained hard to reach the summit before them.
A man stepped forward towards the couple and Menily drew back behind the shelter of Túkwet’s broad back. The man’s face had seen the passing of many hot seasons and was cracked and weathered like the surface of the rock they stood on. His usually merry eyes held no joy.
“Daughter,” he called to Menily. The wind tried to seal his voice, but still it rang loud and clear in the mountain air. Menily did not move. “Daughter,” he repeated, more sternly.
Menily looked up at Túkwet who gave a slight nod of encouragement. She stiffened her spine and stuck her tattooed chin out slightly before moving from behind the refuge of her lover’s body. “Father,” she said simply.
Black flint eyes mirrored black flint eyes as they regarded each other in silence. “Come,” Húnwet said finally. He motioned with his outstretched hand.
“No.” Menily’s voice carried power with that word and she felt it course through her body. She had never once refused her father, and unspoken emotions rippled across his face.
Húnwet dropped his hand and his shoulders lost a little of their proud lift. “Daughter,” he said again, more softly than before, “You know you cannot go with this man. It is forbidden by our laws… and by me.”
Another man stepped forward from the group of gathered hunters. Her brother’s eyes were full of malice. “Not a man. A sorcerer!” he spat. “Perhaps even a demon like Tahquitz himself. See, he even brings her to this place, in the shadow of the demon’s peak.” A low murmur of agreement hummed through the men.
Menily felt a chill creep down her back although she tried to ignore it. Just as she had tried to ignore the lily white crag that loomed large in her periphery vision. The massive bluff clung to the side of a green furred mountain, taunting her with tales of its cursed past. She never would have ventured so close to Tahquitz’s rock, but Túkwet had told her they would be safe here, across the small valley from haunted outcrop. She hadn’t questioned him, not once. Not when he told her he would marry her upon their first meeting, not when he appeared in her kish as she slept, waking her and motioning quietly for her to follow, and not when he told her they would need to climb into the mountains. She would have followed Túkwet anywhere from the moment she saw him…
The basket was not forming as she had planned. Her coils were lop-sided and the pattern was uneven and amateurish. Menily threw it to the side and let out a small sound of exasperation. She was supposed to be the best basket weaver in the village. A low chuckle from behind made her head snap up.
“You lost this,” he said, handing back the discarded basket. Menily’s blood sang in her veins as she locked her gaze with the stranger’s. “Míyaxwe,” he said, greeting her with his strange accent. “I am Túkwet.” His eyes were golden, like his namesake – the mountain lion. They stared at each other for a moment that hung heavy in the space between them before he murmured, “And I have found you.”
Traders were not uncommon in her village, but the items Túkwet brought had never been seen by the people of Menily’s sibs before and they warmly welcomed him into their villages. His visits increased and some began to tease Menily that it was the value of her baskets that kept bringing Túkwet back so frequently. But, the teases turned to sharp looks when Menily and Túkwet’s affection for each other became apparent. As the only daughter of the net, the village leader, she could not marry a nomad.
Túkwet was banned from the villages, but before he departed he whispered into her ear. “I will return for you near the end of the hot season, when the sun sinks earlier in the day, and the winds blow from east to west.”
Menily’s heart shriveled daily as she waited for the moons to pass and the heat to fade. The colors of life paled and each morning she woke with trails of dried salt on her cheeks. Her father, her mother, and even her four brothers tried to cheer Menily, but it wasn’t until she was awakened by a shadow with golden eyes that she was able to smile again. Swiftly and silently, Menily had followed Túkwet into the night.
Menily did not respond to her brother’s outburst, instead addressing her father. “How did you know where to find us?”
Her father opened his mouth to speak, but it was Túkwet who replied. “I told them.”
Menily spun towards Túkwet. “You? Why? Why would you tell them where we were going?”
“I told you that we would find safety here. I left a message with a boy to pass to your father. I wanted them to be here. To show them.” Túkwet brushed his fingers along her jaw and then took a few steps closer to the edge of the precipice, facing the open air.
Menily lowered her brows trying to make sense of Túkwet’s words. “I don’t understand. How is this safety if you have brought them here? They will take me back.”
Túkwet turned back towards Menily extending his hand out to her. She reached for it and he drew her close to his body. She felt odd. Her skin hummed like a thousand bees buzzed around her.
Túkwet lowered his mouth to her ear. “Do you trust me?”
Menily stared at Túkwet, trying to comprehend his meaning. His eyes shifted to the cliff and her gut clinched in immediate understanding of what he intended.
“Menily!” her father shouted, trying to draw her attention. Húnwet quickly began closing the distance between them.
Menily could see her dark eyes reflected in Túkwet’s, and the world around her shrunk to the man who gripped her body. Words escaped her, but images of her life – her past and her future – collided together. Emotions bubbled up and were replaced by others in an instant that felt like years inside her. Menily bobbed her head once in agreement. She had lived without Túkwet once. She would not do it again. Túkwet’s mouth twisted in a quick smile and his lips began to move without sound, then together their legs pushed off the rock.
Menily heard one of her brother’s begin to yell, but the rest was lost. The wind ripped at her skin and pulled at her hair as she leapt hand-in-hand with Túkwet. Their gaze met as they fell and suddenly Menily realized that she had been wrong. Túkwet’s eyes were not like a mountain lion’s at all.
Húnwet rushed forward at his son’s cry, but his hands reached nothing but sky. Grief split the old man’s heart and he glanced over the edge to see where his daughter rested. The bodies should have been splayed on the granite below. But there was nothing. The rock was bare except for the shadows of two eagles that spun in lazy spirals near the valley floor. They gradually flew higher, keeping close to the side of the cliff. Sunlight gleamed off their brown feathers and one of the eagles flew in a low, lingering circle above Húnwet. He stared at it, black flint eyes mirroring black flint eyes, before the eagle screeched and followed her golden-eyed mate.